The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Choosing the best leafy greens

Tokyo bekanaGreens aren't very sexy, so I don't talk about them much.  But if you considered the vegetable side of our diet, I'll bet cooked greens would make up a quarter of the pie, so I figured it was worth trying out a few new varieties this year.  (As a side note, what I call "greens" are often referred to in the literature as potherbs.  I'm talking about vegetables we grow to eat as cooked leaves.)

Before I launch into what I thought of the newcomers to the garden, I should probably tell you what our old standbys are.  The summer garden is Swiss chard all the way --- this is the only green that doesn't bolt and the plant's mild flavor doesn't need the sweetening effects of frost.  Most of the other greens are in the crucifer family with broccoli and Kyona mizunacabbages, but swiss chard is just about alone (except for spinach, beets, and amaranth), so garden rotations are a bit easier with swiss chard in the mix.  To top it all off, this summer green isn't bothered by cabbage worms or flea beetles, although last year we did get an infestation of striped blister beetles.

Our favorite fall and winter green is kale.  After a frost, kale becomes so sweet that we eat it like candy, and the plant is also our most cold hardy green, sometimes managing to overwinter without protection in zone 6.  That said, I usually hedge my bets in the fall by also planting mustard.  The flavor of mustard isn't anything to write home about, but the plants love our weather and grow like crazy when nothing else will.  And mustard is a local staple, so you can get the seeds cheap at the feed store.

Everyone seemed to be singing the praises of Asian greens last year, though, so I thought I'd better jump on the bandwagon.  On the recommendation of one of Elliot Coleman's books, I planted tokyo bekana and kyona mizuna in early March hoping that these would turn into good additions to our summer garden.  The kyona mizuna is a bit of a wash --- the leaves are thick and not very tasty, in my opinion, and the flea beetles love them.  On the other hand, Mark and I both adore the flavor of the tokyo bekana (although the flea beetles do too.)  But I'm a bit disappointed to see that both of these Asian greens are already starting to bolt (especially the kyona mizuna) --- I guess they won't be summer greens after all.

ChicoryMeanwhile, I sprinkled chicory (aka Italian Dandelion) seeds on expansions of various tree mounds in the forest garden.  The goal was to come up with a cultivated perennnial green that likes partial shade and will give us tasty dinners early in spring when annuals aren't growing.  I couldn't find any chicory specifically labelled as a perennial so this experiment may fail in the long run, but in the short run I'm thrilled with the results.  The Catalogna Special Italian Dandelion I planted in early March was big enough for frequent small cuttings starting at about six weeks old and I've found that adding 10% chicory to a pot of other greens adds complexity to the dish's flavor.  (In earlier spring, the leaves should be less bitter and edible on their own.)

Coming up next in 2011's great greens trial are a variety of amaranth grown for summer greens and tatsoi (another Asian green) in the fall.  I also plan to experiment with several new varieties of kale to see if I can find one that's even tastier (inconceivable!) and more winter hardy.  I'd be curious to hear which greens are your standbys and why.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Well, mustard is MY favorite green, after collards.
Comment by Errol Fri May 13 08:16:25 2011

I really enjoyed collards last year and I love the way the hybrids look in the garden, with a kind of smoky blue/gray color instead of bright green. The young leaves are so tender and tasty and great to add to soups and steeped or steamed for just a minute or two. We've relied on collard greens for two years in a row now, and besides experimenting with new varieties, I think we will plan to continue growing them in the future.

Another plant I love, when it does well, is the swiss chard. Planted it for fall the first year without such great results, because by then the pests were so bad that they were all eaten up and didn't get a chance to grow. Some came up the following spring (from the originaly planting) and grew into nice big plants that were very tasty. With our heat they tend to wilt pretty badly in the sun and after a certain point in the summer they just don't seem to recover, although that is only one year's experience (and I wasn't as attentive as I plan to be in the future).

We have also had a lot of success with lettuce over the winter. We started with a mesclun mix and I found a few species in there that I liked in particular. This fall I am going to start with some new seed for romain. I am also going to experiment with chinese cabbage and an interesting herb called Salad Burnet that is said to taste like fresh cucumbers. We have a lot of dense patches of wild violets, but their tiny leaves make them difficult to collect in large numbers so I usually just add the leaves and flowers to salads with other greens as the main ingredient. I can't think of any other greens I use, but sometimes I do enjoy more potent herbs like parsley for certain types of salads-- tabouleh, egg salad, etc.

Some summer greens I have considered are malabar spinach and new zealand spinach. I haven't tried either of them yet, but I have a friend who grows malabar spinach and the seeds are easy to save. I've also tried amaranth, but not with much luck and the leaves always taste bitter to me.

Comment by Sara Fri May 13 09:06:27 2011

I planted a partial row of "mixed greens" last year which did all right, nothing spectacular. I think one of those seeds overwintered, but I can't identify it and I don't want to eat it if it's a weed. It's quite large now and the leaf is purple/burgundy. It's not chard, and my garden center guru doesn't know what it is. Any ideas? I'm going to post a photo on Facebook, if you know what it is, you can comment there.

We like beet greens the best, followed by kale which I've had very little luck cultivating here. I think I'm planting it too early, and will try a later crop this year.

Comment by Debbi Fri May 13 11:25:50 2011

Daddy --- my two least favorites. Maybe that's why I didn't like greens growing up? :-)

Sara --- Your swiss chard might do better with some heavy mulch, but it's also possible that it can't cope with the really deep South. People around here don't grow it much, though I'm not sure why since it thrives for us.

I didn't mention salad greens because they're in another category for me. I tend to focus on leaf lettuce there --- black-seeded simpson does the best for us. The mesclun mixes can be delicious, but the seeds are just too expensive. I don't think of it them actual salads, but we use parsley and egyptian onions extensively in our egg and tuna salads.

I've read about malabar spinach and new zealand spinach and will probably try them someday. I've never had much luck with "real" spinach, though, which holds me back. Spinach seems to grow slowly for us and then suddenly bolt. Sounds like I should prepare to be disappointed with leaf amaranth!

Debbi --- I'd be glad to look at your photo on facebook --- just put it on Walden Effect's wall or tag us somehow. People ask me this question all the time, though, and my answer is usually "well, where are your records of what was included in that mixed greens packet?" Good records go a long way!

Sounds like your greens tastes are similar to ours, since beet greens are very close to swiss chard. I hope you have better luck with your kale this year!

Comment by anna Fri May 13 11:53:17 2011
Beet greens! That sounds good. I forgot all about my plan to grow edible cover crops this year, so I have a packet of turnips, kale, and mustard greens that I will be experimenting with. I've always loved kale but never see it in any of the stores or markets around here so I've wondered if people just don't like to grow it, or if they have trouble growing it here. I'll find out soon enough.
Comment by Sara Sat May 14 13:14:22 2011
I don't know this for sure, but my gut says that kale is a northern thing. It definitely needs the cold weather for optimal temperatures, but maybe it'll grow down south!
Comment by anna Sat May 14 15:23:03 2011
Ate kale all winter down here. It's the last green we're still eating.
Comment by Errol Sat May 14 15:45:51 2011
Sara lives so far south it's almost inconceivable to me. She planted tomatoes over two months before I did! I can't remember where she actually lives, but I wouldn't be surprised if a subtropical setting like southern Florida might not have the chill requirements for some greens.
Comment by anna Sat May 14 16:43:36 2011

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