Most gardens will produce a parade of lovely greens for eating fresh or cooked. Of course you will want crisp and colorful lettuces for salads, but dark leafy greens such as kale and chard deserve space in the garden, too. Dark leafy greens provide more nutrition per square foot than any other garden crop, and different greens can come and go as the season unfolds. You can start out with lettuce and kale in early spring, plant heat-tolerant chard as a summer crop, and then grow more lettuce and kale for fall.
Leafy greens tend to be shallow-rooted plants that do not demand extremely rich soil, but they do need plenty of sun and a constant supply of water. Most leafy greens are easy to grow from seed, but if you’re new to gardening and can’t tell seedlings from weeds, work with purchased seedlings your first year.
To learn more about getting started with your own garden, see Vegetable Gardening Tips for Beginners.
The queen of salad greens, lettuce comes in an endless array of colors and leaf types, and all except slow-growing iceberg varieties make excellent garden crops. Because lettuce can only be eaten fresh, make several small sowings rather than one large one. If you have a very sunny window or fluorescent lights, you can even grow lettuce in shallow containers in late winter. After the first set of leaves is snipped to eat as baby greens, the trimmed-back plants can be set out in the garden in early spring, where they will quickly regrow.
Best Lettuce Varieties
As long as you plant lettuce in early spring and again in late summer, so the plants grow in cool weather, these dependable lettuce varieties will give great results grown almost anywhere.
• ‘Red Sails’ has crinkled green leaves with burgundy edges. The crisp leaves are ready to start picking in only 50 days.
• ‘Buttercrunch’ is a green butterhead with white ribs that forms a loose, crispy head in about 70 days. Released by Cornell University in 1963, ‘Buttercrunch’ always makes a great crop and with more crunch than most other varieties.
• ‘Jericho’ is a great romaine-type that will form small heads in about 60 days. Its special talent is good tolerance of spring heat spells—a challenge with romaines, which grow slower than other types of lettuce.
Lettuce lover’s tip: In addition to growing individual varieties of lettuce, look for lettuce seed mixtures that include a blend of red- and green-leafed varieties. Variety mixtures bring color to the plate, and they are a fun way to discover interesting varieties, too.
Chard is easier to grow and 10 times more productive than its better-known cousin, spinach. Unlike most leafy greens, chard keeps its mild flavor in hot weather, so cooked chard can be substituted for spinach in recipes during the summer months. Sow chard seeds in spring, at about the time of your last frost, or start with purchased plants. Chard planted from seed usually requires thinning to one plant every 12 inches or so, but the seedlings’ brightly colored stems make them easy to distinguish from weeds. Use a small pair of scissors to thin seedlings that are growing too close together. About six weeks after planting begin harvesting leaves as you need them in the kitchen, twisting off outer leaves two or three at a time.
Three Choice Chards
• The stems and leaf veins of chard can be white, red, yellow, orange or pink, and the award-winning ‘Bright Lights’ variety includes all of these vibrant colors. As you thin ‘Bright Lights’ plants, you can keep the colors you like best.
• If productivity is more important than color, white-stemmed ‘Fordhook Giant’ chard grows so vigorously you will need only a few plants. When finely chopped, the white ribs of ‘Fordhook Giant’ can stand in for celery in cold salads.
• Sometimes called spinach-chard, ‘Perpetual’ chard has short, narrow leaves compared with other varieties, but it is an excellent choice for small gardens because of its petite size and ability to produce fresh leaves for picking all summer long.
Chard lover’s tip: Chard plants set out in spring stay productive all summer, but in locations where summers are long it’s best to start new plants in late summer to extend the harvest into fall.
The most vigorous grower in the cabbage family, kale leaves are packed with vitamins A, C and K. Easy to grow from seeds or purchased seedlings, just four or five plants will provide an abundant supply for cooking or green smoothies. Pick two to three leaves from each plant once a week, and new leaves will quickly grow from the plants’ centers. In mild winter areas, kale plants grown in the fall will often survive the winter and produce pretty yellow flowers in spring.
No-Fail Kale Varieties
• ‘Red Russian’ kale is the productivity champ, pumping out armloads of slightly puckered green leaves with red stems. Cabbageworms and other insects that damage other cabbage-family crops often ignore ‘Red Russian’ kale, perhaps because of its soft leaf texture and red color.
• ‘Lacinato’ kale, sometimes called dinosaur or Tuscan kale, develops upright, very dark green leaves with a waffled texture and mild flavor. The flat, uniform leaves are easy to cut into thin strips that cook fast when added to soups, sauces or pasta dishes.
• ‘Redbor’ kale features finely curled purple-red leaves so beautiful that the plants look right at home in front-yard flowerbeds. Cold temperatures deepen its color, so cold-hardy ‘Redbor’ often performs better in fall than in spring.
Kale lover’s tip: Use a kale plant as the central element in a large container planted with edible flowers and herbs such as pansies and parsley.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.