Greens are a Southern favorite

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.  |  9/28/2009 8:34:43 PM

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For Release On Or After 10/09/09

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

In the South, the term “greens” refers to vegetables whose leaves are eaten after they’re cooked until tender. During cool fall temperatures, mustard, turnip, collards and other greens flourish in the vegetable garden. Greens are highly recommended for the home vegetable garden because they’re easy-to-grow and very productive. Growing greens is a great way to keep your vegetable garden productive through the winter.

Mustard and turnips are fast-growing greens, and harvesting can begin as early as five or six weeks after planting. You can harvest entire plants or “crop” them by removing only the lower, larger leaves. Cropping provides harvest while allowing the plant to remain and continue to grow, allowing you to extend the harvest. Generally, if the winter is mild, mustard and turnip can be cropped until late winter or early spring from a planting done now.

Cropping turnips will reduce the size of the root, so you may want to reserve a portion of your turnips for root production. On those plants, don’t harvest any leaves. The leaves will produce food through photosynthesis. Then, the food is transferred to the roots for storage, and the plants develop nice-sized turnips ready to harvest in eight or nine weeks.

Collards can be grown year-round, but the best quality comes during the cool season. A frost will “sweeten” collards and make the greens even tastier. Plant the seeds 2 inches apart, and then thin the plants as they grow to a spacing of 10 to 12 inches between plants. Properly spaced plants are best harvested by cropping the older, larger leaves. Collards tolerate high temperatures better than most greens. They are also very cold-hardy and survive temperatures in the low 20s without damage.

Spinach must have cool weather for best production, and fall plantings do especially well. A warm spell can often cause this vegetable to “bolt,” particularly when grown in the spring. Bolt is a term used when a leafy vegetable matures and produces a flower stalk. You want to prevent your spinach from bolting so it will produce leaves instead of flowers. Cool weather, adequate water and regular fertilization with nitrogen will encourage the spinach to remain in its vegetative growth cycle. Spinach is slow-growing for the first few weeks after it comes up. Be patient and keep the plants well watered, and they will eventually grow large enough to harvest the entire plant or begin cropping.

Swiss chard is an excellent substitute for spinach. It’s easier to grow and more productive and tolerates warm weather much better than spinach. The leaves of chard can easily grow 14 to 18 inches tall, so production is much greater than with spinach. Chard is available in several white-stemmed types. Red-stemmed types such as Vulcan and a variety called Bright Lights (which produces stems of white, rose, red, yellow-gold or orange) are very ornamental and even look great in flowerbeds.

When cooked, chard is similar in flavor to spinach, and young, tender chard leaves can be eaten raw. The leaf stems are delicious cooked separately and have a mild, almost asparagus-like flavor. Plant the seeds 2 to 4 inches apart, and thin the plants to eventually stand 8 to 10 inches apart. Harvest chard by cropping.

Kale is a close relative of collards and has a similar flavor when cooked. Kale is very cold-hardy and can withstand temperatures in the teens. Space plants 10 to 12 inches apart. Ornamental kale, with its brightly colored rose, pink or white leaves, has become a popular landscape plant in the past few years and is also edible.

Cabbage is another leafy vegetable suited to cool weather. You can find green and red cabbage varieties. The heads are ready to harvest when they become hard. Transplants planted now should be ready to harvest in late winter or early spring.

Although not generally cooked, lettuce is also often included with the greens, and leaf and semi-heading lettuce varieties are easy to grow. The heading lettuce varieties, such as iceberg, are more of a challenge. Leaf or semi-heading types of lettuce to try include romaine, buttercrunch, bibb and oak leaf, which are sure winners. Red lettuce adds interest to your salads. Red Sails is a variety that is easy to grow and doesn’t become bitter until the heat of summer.

Other vegetables can be planted now in your garden along with greens. Root crops such as rutabaga, radish, carrot and beet thrive in cool weather. Shallots, onions and garlic also should be planted now. Garlic and onions will need to grow until May to produce bulbs. Of course, green onions and shallots can be harvested all winter into early spring.

During the fall and winter, you can grow annual herbs such as parsley, dill, celery, borage, cilantro and fennel. You also can plant perennial herbs such oregano, thyme, sage, chives, rosemary, mint, sorrel, burnnet, lemon balm and French tarragon. If space in your garden is limited, grow herbs in containers. Set the containers in a sunny location close to your door so harvesting will be more convenient.

Rick Bogren

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