From garden to galley, from green thumb to blue plate, American gardeners and gourmets are sowing and growing their way into a healthy diet of mixed greens that are great to grow and easy to eat.
It’s a diet that would do popular cartoon icon Popeye proud. However, our knowledge of greens is worlds away even from the days that Popeye sailed into the American lexicon. It’s no longer true that “. . . garden lettuce with leafy head/Is hard to get as unsliced bread,” as Ogden Nash once complained. Garden lettuce is now available in restaurants, supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and urban, suburban, and country gardens across the nation. And not only lettuce, but all manner of greens—from radicchio to romaine, cabbage to kale, mizuna to mustard. Even five years ago, most of these greens were not grown on a commercial scale, nor offered in many seed catalogs.
A confluence of factors is swelling this rediscovery of greens: interest in eating healthy, fueled by medical research into foodstuffs; an influx of immigrant populations bringing favorite greens with them; the ease of growing most greens, even in small spaces; and food professionals’ desire for plate and palate novelty.
Grab Bag of Greens
But just what are greens? They can be defined as the succulent leaves and stems, eaten cooked or raw, of herbs, flowers, and vegetables, annual and perennial, in colors ranging from pale jade green to bright magenta, from many different plant families and cultures around the world.
This grab-bag definition of greens has long been customary in Anglo-American countries, perhaps because greens are naturally abundant and generally easy to grow. A more common definition limits greens to conventional green leaves—spinach, chard, kale, collard, mustard, turnip, and beet greens, and lettuce.
Myths and Legends
Greens have a long and legendary history. The Egyptians recorded lettuce growing around 4,500 b.c. and painted romaine lettuces in royal tombs. The Sumerians listed cress, lettuce, mustard, and turnips among the crops they grew in 2,500 b.c. The ancient Greeks and Romans greatly fancied greens, particularly lettuces. The Romans ate stem lettuce, romaine lettuce, endive, chicory, and mallow in salads. One rather elaborate Roman recipe for a mixed-green salad dressing contains fresh soft cheese, honey, wine, fish sauce, vinegar, herbs, pine nuts, dates, and raisins. Though the ancients did not codify vitamin and mineral contents, they knew which greens to gather and cultivate for nutrition and flavor—and which to celebrate with stories and recipes.
Egyptian, Greek, and Roman legends and myths about lettuce center on its supposed procreative, amatory, and erotic properties. Goddesses and gods mate with lettuce, turn one another into lettuce, and use it to seduce each other. They sleep on beds of lettuce as well; its reputation as a soothing, sleep-inducing plant was remarkably consistent until the last century. Aristoxenus, a Greek philosopher and musicologist of the fourth century b.c., provided one of the nicest ancient recipes for preparing lettuce: He sprinkled his lettuces in the evening with wine and honey, picked them at dawn the next day, and called them green cakes given to him by the earth.
The Jewish ritual of eating sorrel and other bitter herbs at Passover is thousands of years old. An Easter soup of watercress, sorrel, dandelion, chervil, and spinach is still made in Bavaria. And the King of Nepal sent spinach plants to the Chinese rulers of the Tang dynasty in the seventh century A.D.
Greens are not only good, they’re good for you. Beta carotene, related carotenoids, and vitamins B2 (riboflavin), C, and E—the antioxidants that prevent the breakdown of complex chemicals in biological tissues and systems—are found in abundance in all the dark green greens. These include spinach, chard, collard, kale, and beet, turnip, and mustard greens.
In the 1920s and 1930s, vitamin and mineral contents were established for many unprocessed foods, including greens. They confirmed what people had known for centuries: Greens are high in many elements necessary for good health. Calcium is found in kale, bok choi, watercress, and dandelion and mustard greens. Substantial amounts of iron are present in sorrel and endive, as well as the above lettuces. Chicories such as radicchio, Belgian endive, and escarole, plus sorrel and loose-leaf lettuces, are good sources of vitamin A. Sorrel also has a good amount of vitamins B2 and C. All the chicories contain significant vitamin C. Spinach, dandelion greens, mustard greens, and the cresses are at or near the top of practically every supplement list: iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins A, B1, B2, C, and niacin. Spinach also is high in magnesium. Cabbages are related to mustards, and they contain the same vitamins and minerals, though usually in smaller amounts.
Green Thumb Tips
Most greens are easy to grow if their needs are respected. All like a well-drained, fertile soil high in organic matter. Virtually all thrive in a sub-acid to neutral soil, pH 6.0 to 7.0. All have the best growth and flavor when they have plenty of water. When daytime temperatures rise above 75°F, daily watering is usually required. Rain or overhead watering is adequate for most greens, but both encourage rust and rot in lettuces, particularly in hot weather. Drip irrigation, or otherwise applying water at the base of the plants, is a good way to water all greens.
Mulching between plants is a great help in keeping the soil moist. All greens respond well to light side applications of granular fertilizer or foliar feeding with a water-soluable fertilizer during the growing season. Most greens thrive on nitrogen; spinach is simply greedy for it. Organic fertilizer and well-aged compost or manure provide nutrients without the risk of burning the plants.
You’ll also want to protect your greens from critters and soil-borne disease. Many biological and plant-derived controls are now available to eradicate or discourage cabbage worms, aphids, flea beetles, slugs, and snails. Copper-strip barriers are effective against the latter two. Of all the fauna that inhabit gardens, only about 10 percent do harm to the crops; ladybugs and other beneficial predator insects flourish where poisons are not used. Birds, rabbits, and deer love tender young greens; barriers can be effective when erected right after transplanting or germination. For further information on pest control, contact your local County Extension Office.
For urbanites without a garden plot, try wielding your green thumb indoors. Greens that grow well in 10- to 12-inch-deep containers include radicchio and kale, lettuces—especially small cultivars of loose-leaf and butterhead types—tat soi, New Zealand spinach, watercress, rocket, mallow, and perilla. Salad mixes do well in long window boxes. Use soilless potting mix rather than garden soil to promote good drainage, and try under- or interplanting your greens with small edible flowers such as Gem marigolds, nasturtiums, and Johnny-jump-ups.
Store and Save
Greens are quite perishable. Those bought at supermarkets have already been stored a week or longer; using them on the day of purchase or the day after maximizes nutrition and flavor. Most greens can be stored in plastic bags in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator. Watercress yellows very quickly; trim the stems and store the cress upright in a container holding about an inch of water, covered with a plastic bag to prevent cold dehydration in the refrigerator.
In general, the thicker the leaves and the tighter the head, the longer greens can be stored under refrigeration. Head cabbages keep best, though even they will mold eventually. Kale, collard, savoy, and Oriental cabbages keep three or four days. Chard, spinach, and turnip, mustard, and beet greens keep two or three days. Salad greens are the most perishable and may pick up a “refrigerator” flavor. Remove any brown or decaying bits from salad mixes, then wash, dry, and store in plastic bags or a salad spinner for a day or so if you can’t use them immediately.
Greens from a farmer’s market and from your own garden keep well on the rare occasions when they are not harvested for immediate consumption, but because flavor is so important to the enjoyment of food, you’ll prefer to eat greens as soon as possible.
Adapted from The Greens Book by Susan Belsinger and Carolyn Dille, long-time chefs and food writers whose articles have appeared in Gourmet, Food & Wine, and The Herb Companion magazines, and whose books include Herbs in the Kitchen, The Garlic Book, and The Chile Pepper Book.
Savoy cabbage—sweet, hint of hot
Oriental cabbage—sweet, hot
Mizuna—sweet, bitter aftertaste
Belgian endive—nutty, bittersweet
Arugula—nutty, peppery, smoky
Garland crysanthemum—pungent, tart
Corn salad (mâche)—mild, sweet
Dandelion—earthy, bitter, hot