Growing Leafy Greens Year-Round

Highly nutritious and versatile in the kitchen, kale, spinach and other greens are easy to grow in nearly any space or season.

| September/October 2016

  • Hardy greens such as kale or spinach can be grown all year long, with the right preparations.
    Photo by iStock

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.

Types of Greens

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.

Greens in the Garden

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!).

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