Many Southerners ring in the new year by eating greens. When you say “greens” in the South, you may be talking about turnip, mustard or collard greens, but today we also add in kale and Swiss chard as leafy greens. And nutritious greens are as easy to grow as they are popular to eat.
Turnip, mustard, collard greens and kale are all members of the cabbage family. While turnip plants can be grown for the root as well as the leaves, most “greens” are plants grown to be eaten in their leafy state, sometimes accompanied by the stems.
Greens can be grown in the early cool-season garden and again in the fall and winter garden. They do best in full sun with even moisture.
Collard greens will tolerate the coldest and hottest temperatures of the greens, while mustard greens probably are the least heat-tolerant. Collards, kale and Swiss chard can continue to grow and be harvested into the summer months, while turnip and mustard greens will typically not be as tasty when the weather gets hot. Mustard greens have the best flavor if harvested under cool temperatures. They can be bitter or quite hot if they are exposed to high temperatures. Collard greens taste somewhat more bitter than turnip greens, which tend to be sweeter. Turnip greens are also smaller and more tender than collards. Kale can be a tough performer and has a long growing season.
All greens can be planted by seed, and we now see transplants available for Swiss chard, collards and kale. When planted as a fall crop, the latest they can be planted varies by location within the state. As a spring crop, you can start planting as soon as you can work the soil. Many gardeners are now growing greens from fall through early summer, with them easily overwintering in our milder winters. Plants can be covered if temperatures get really low.
Once plants are up and growing, do some harvesting of the leaves on a regular basis. This will keep the plant producing new, tender leaves instead of having a lot of older, tough leaves.
Turnips have been grown for nearly 4,000 years and have spread all over the world from their original home in Europe. Commercially, there are varieties of turnip seed for producing better roots or greens, but most home gardeners want a little of both. Home gardeners can seed a little heavier and then thin out the plants as they are growing — eating the greens as they thin and leaving behind others to form roots. A lighter soil is better for turnips, especially if you are interested in growing the roots. Turnips are a shallow-rooted, cool-season crop, and they need ample water for germination and vigorous growth. Speed of growth determines the quality of the roots; they tend to be more fibrous on slower-growing plants. If you are interested in roots, back off on the nitrogen fertilizer a bit, so that you don’t have as many tops. Turnips make a nice winter cover crop. They may freeze back a bit, but the turnip roots and greens can be harvested all winter.
Mustard, collards and kale have similar cultural needs as turnips, but aren’t as picky about loose soils, since we are growing foliage instead of a big root. You need to avoid soils that hold water in the winter or early spring or your plants will rot. If your soil stays wet, consider using raised beds. Fertilization should be done at planting and then side dress two to three more times throughout the season, depending on the weather and how they are growing.
If you are planting mustard and turnips by seed and need to tell which seedling you are growing, take a bite of the seedling. The turnip seedling has little taste, and the mustard will burn your tongue. A little fresh mustard thrown in with a mix of salad greens offers a nice spicy flavor.
Kale can be grown from seed or transplant, and there are many varieties with green or purple leaves, smooth or flat leaves. Some of the more popular varieties include the dinosaur or Lacinato kale — also called Tuscan or black kale. This smooth-leafed kale has thinner and upright dark bluish-gray foliage. It is considered sweeter than some of the other kales. Redbor kale is not only nutritious but quite showy in the winter garden. The foliage is purplish-red and gets darker as it ages.
Home gardeners often plant transplants for collards versus seeds. When planting from seed there is a 60-day minimum time period between seeding and harvesting. If you plant transplants, you can begin harvesting in 30 days. You can pick individual leaves and harvest from one individual plant many times throughout the season instead of harvesting the whole plant at once. Collards are slower growing than other greens, but they will tolerate a wider range of soils.
Swiss chard is in the beet family and has been gaining in popularity as a leafy green. Swiss chard has more variability of leaf colors than other greens. There are numerous varieties with outstanding color. The stalks, or petioles, are where most of the coloration occurs, but there will also be some coloration in the veins of the leaves. You can eat both the leaves and the stems of this plant. This winter, it froze back with the early frost in November, but it normally overwinters fairly well and can continue to grow and be harvested into summer. It can be planted now from seed or transplant.
Regardless of which variety of greens you are growing, give them full sun and even moisture, and you will be rewarded with months of tasty, nutritious leaves. A one-cup cooked serving of these greens contains iron, calcium, several B vitamins and more vitamin C than an orange — with fewer than 20 calories (unless you load them up with pork fat or bacon). They are also a good source of soluble fiber and flavonoid antioxidants. Many greens can be used interchangeably in recipes and can be used in everything from dips and quiches to pasta dishes and even bread. Raw greens salads are popular, and they have become a lettuce replacement on sandwiches and hamburgers.
If you aren’t growing greens, you should be, and now is a great time to get started.