Highly nutritious and versatile in the kitchen, kale, spinach and other greens are easy to grow in nearly any space or season.
If you want to eat homegrown fresh food year-round, it’s not difficult. Simply grow more greens. “Greens,” a catchall term for veggies with leaves we eat, include spinach, kale, mustard, collards and lettuce, among others. Within this category is a variety of plants that thrive in a range of garden conditions. Most greens are also nutrient-dense and remarkably versatile in the kitchen, where they add color, texture, flavor, vitamins and minerals to an array of dishes.
Greens come in an astonishing variety of flavors and textures, but we can divide them into two major categories: those we eat raw, usually called salad greens; and those we eat cooked.
What often distinguishes the two is usually not the specific plant, but the point at which they are picked. Most types of greens are tender enough to eat raw when picked at an early stage—usually called baby greens or microgreens. As they get larger, many greens become tougher and more bitter, which enables their texture and flavor to stand up when cooked. Although greens offer a range of flavor profiles, it’s usually fine to substitute one cooked green for another in recipes—say collards for kale—or to enjoy many kinds together, as is often done in commercial salad mixes.
Some greens such as cabbage and iceberg lettuce form tight heads that must be harvested all at once, while others have a looser structure that makes it easy to harvest individual leaves. In general, I find the loose-leafed plants easier to grow, so those are the plants I focus on here.
All of this points to a big plus for gardeners: Loose-leafed greens can be picked at any stage. That means that with many greens you don’t have long to wait before you can harvest a crop, especially if you’re aiming for tender microgreens.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of greens is that they can grow in a wide range of temperatures. Many popular greens, including lettuce and spinach, do best in the mild temperatures that occur, in much of North America, mainly in spring and fall. Other greens, including kale, collards and spinach, can withstand temperatures below freezing and even snow and ice without any protection. Summer can be a challenging season for many greens, because they start to bolt—meaning they produce stalks and eventually flowers. When that happens, the leaves are past their prime. But a few exceptional varieties do well even in heat (kale and collards again!).
If you want to enjoy year-round greens, choose one or two varieties that do well in heat and a couple that tolerate cold. Then select a few other types to try during the prime growing times of spring and fall, and start mixing it up! The biggest change you’ll need to make is a mental shift: Gardening isn’t just for spring and summer. Start planting, find what works for you, and with a little effort, you can harvest fresh, nutritious greens in all four seasons.
• Greens are easy to direct-seed in the garden, which means we save money by putting in seeds rather than buying plants. Even better, nothing goes to waste when you need to thin plants—you can eat the seedlings as microgreens.
• As a group, greens don’t take up a lot of space, which makes them great choices for small gardens and containers.
• Greens are good choices for sowing a few stealth vegetables into a flower garden. Many greens blend in beautifully with plants grown mainly as ornamentals. In fact, some of these plants come in varieties planted as ornamentals, notably kale.
Find greens for every season in Cold Hardy Crops and Heat Tolerant Crops.
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