Daydreaming about a garden of leafy delights

Planting: Greens, in a variety of colors and international origins, are often carefree crops that add healthful variety to the diet in early spring.

In The Garden

March 10, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

This time of year, I start thinking about greens -- well, not just greens -- also reds, purples, limes, and oranges and pink-fringed blues.

But they're all classified as greens. Rainbow chard, ruddy mustards, slate-blue kale, collards and a load of other cool-weather leafy things are among the first fresh garden-grown vegetables available. Seeded into the ground with happy anticipation in early spring (or in the case of kale and collards, with admirable foresight last fall), they beautifully fringe the empty perennial beds or clump together in a corner.

They also offer a good suppertime alternative to what's left at the bottom of the vegetable bin. Added to broth with a few scallions, they are tonic in a bowl. One clue to the nutritional benefits of cool weather greens is their rich color.

"In all vegetables, color has a lot to do with vitamin content," says Nancy DiMauro, horticultural manager at Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester, Maine. "The greener and darker the leaves the better they are for you."

While the dark color of cool weather greens advertises their high vitamin content -- confirmed by modern research -- Europeans and Asians have prized them for centuries. Italians and French have reams of recipes for chard, broccoli raab, kale and spinach. Asian cultures have long grown bok choy, mizuna, and tatsoi.

A long list

Many of the early greens -- kale, bok choy, mizuna, collards, mustard greens, tatsoi (spoon mustard), hon stai tai, turnips, and broccoli raab -- hail from the Brassica family, cousins to things like cabbage and Brussels sprouts. But there is also shungiku, an edible chrysanthemum.

Chard (Beta vulgaris), often called Swiss chard because it was first touted by a Swiss botanist, is close kin to beets. Spinach is a member of the Chenopodium (goosefoot) family. But hot weather makes most of the varieties bolt -- go to seed -- and taste bitter.

Regardless of lineage, these greens grow best in cool weather.

Some, such as kale, even sweeten with a frost or two.

In the south, kale, turnip greens, and collards are often planted in fall so they'll be hit with a couple of light frosts before they're eaten.

With protection or in mild winters like this one, we can do that too.

"Tyfon Holland greens, which are a cross between Chinese cabbage and turnip, hardly ever bolts in warm weather so you can grow it all summer long," says DiMauro.

Many early greens can be bitter when raw (even after a frost) but lose their bitterness in cooking, though ultimately, it's all a matter of personal taste.

"Japanese mizuna," says Brian Rakita, co-op manager at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, Va., "is a great dual purpose green.

It's a mustard, but it's mild. You don't think 'sharp' when you eat it raw and it's sweet when it's cooked. It also grows quickly and is very much a cut and come-again vegetable."

The same is true for chard, which is not only delicious in soups, stir-fries, and bean burritos, but is a beautiful addition to the garden.

Rainbow chard grows canary yellow, crimson and pinky mauve ribs with multi-colored leaves. Kale too can add vibrancy to the beds. Redbor kale has densely ruffled pinky-red leaves while Toscano is long and puckered blue-black. And then there's Malabar spinach (basella rubra).

"Malabar has dark green leaves and red stems and grows five feet tall," says DiMauro. "It's quite pretty grown up a trellis. You harvest leaves and cook them or eat them fresh."

Planting and care

"You can plant these things as soon as you can get out in the field," says Stephen Bellavia, researcher at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine. "If it's dried out a little, they'll germinate better."

Direct seed them in rows, then thin as they grow. The plants grow large or small, depending in part upon how much you thin. The closer together they grow, the smaller the plants. (Four to six inches is the recommended distance.)

While a frost can be beneficial, a hard freeze can damage plants.

Planting against a south-facing wall or covering with a sheet of floating row cover can produce a more moderate micro-climate in which they'll thrive.

"With something as simple as a sheet of Remay [floating row cover] you can increase the cold tolerance quite a bit," says Rakita. "They'll survive to around 10 degrees, especially with a little hoop to hold the row cover off the plants."

Since greens don't require pollination, row cover can stay on to thwart flea beetles and cabbage moths (which arrive as the weather warms).

It also helps stave off harlequin beetles which like to lay their bell-shaped eggs on the undersides of brassica leaves.

"Even if they don't kill the spring brassicas, they'll haunt your broccoli crop later on," says Bellavia. "If you see any, I recommend hand-picking them off."

Early greens, which grow in any decent soil, are delightfully undemanding.

"They're pretty much foolproof," says Bellavia. "And most reach full size in 30 to 40 days or so. If you want them sooner, you just cut them sooner."


Johnny's Selected Seeds

184 Foss Hill Road

Albion, Maine 04910-9731


Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

P.O. Box 460

Mineral, Va. 23117


Pinetree Garden Seeds

Box 300

New Gloucester, Maine 04260


Harris Seeds

355 Paul Road

P.O. Box 24966

Rochester, N.Y. 14624-0966



Do you belong to a garden club? Please consider inviting Susan Reimer to a meeting for an article looking at the modern garden club. You can e-mail her at, or call her at 410-332-6637.

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