Grow greens, feel great!
by Emma Cooper
credit: Emma Cooper
Once the dread menace of school dinners, greens are having their moment of glory. Packed with nutrients, they have captured the imaginations of chefs and celebrities alike and can now be found in every guise from green juices to crisps. When it comes to growing greens, there’s a huge variety to choose from for each season so you can reap their benefits all year round.
Biggest of the brassicas right now is kale. Its burgeoning popularity is partly due to its hardiness (throughout the hard winter it has been a godsend), but mostly to its nutritional benefits. High in fibre, vitamins A, C and K and minerals such as potassium and iron, kale is ultra-healthy. It has rapidly become a foodie go-to, with celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver championing it in the UK, and Gwyneth Paltrow leading the charge in the US – where kale chips are a popular snack food.
As the UK season runs from June right through to mid-March, kale provides greens over a long period and is easy to grow, but does take up space. Look for varieties with attractive frilly red or green leaves or try ‘Cavolo Nero’ (the foodie’s choice) which has dark green strap-like leaves.
Sow seeds outside in April and May, and transplant seedlings into their growing position in June or July, with a 45cm spacing .Buy plants now if you’d like a kale harvest this winter.
Cabbages, Brussels sprouts and sprouting broccoli also play an important role in the year-round provision of fresh greens (providing vitamins B12 and folate). Also big plants, they are grown in a similar way to kale; buy plants now if you missed the sowing season.
Your plants may be nibbled by hungry pigeons, and are vulnerable to cabbage white caterpillars over the summer months. In both cases, covering plants with a suitable net is usually the best solution.
Hardy greens suitable for smaller gardens include winter lettuces. Sown from August onwards, they provide harvests in the ‘hungry gap’ in early spring. Some varieties are hardy enough to grow outdoors (try Rouge d’Hiver or Winter Density), whilst others need the protection of a cold frame or some fleece. They need an average of 30cm space, and can either be sown in modules for planting out, or sown direct and thinned to the required spacing. Nutritional benefits include vitamins A and C, and calcium.
Land cress (also known as American cress) is very similar to watercress, but much easier to grow and very hardy. It has two main sowing periods – March to June for leaves over the summer, and August/September for winter cropping. Final spacing is about 20cm. Harvest leaves when you want them, and the plants will continue to grow. Land cress contains several vitamins, as well as iron and calcium.
Baby leaf salads are ubiquitous when you dine out, and are easily recreated at home. All of the big seed companies offer various salad mixes, or you can mix up your own with your favourite leaves. Beetroot, leaf beet and spinach are all good base choices, as are frilly lettuces. For something with a bit more bite, you can add turnip greens and mustards. Amaranth and orach add a splash of colour, and leafy herbs such as parsley and coriander add flavour. Chard offers the potential of two different harvests – baby leaves for salads, followed by larger leaves to cook with a few weeks later. Choose ‘Rhubarb’ or ‘Rainbow Chard’ for colourful stems.
Once you’ve mixed up your seeds, sow a batch every two weeks to give yourself continuous harvests over the summer (and winter, if you pop a pot on the kitchen window sill). Simply snip off what you need, when you need it. Don’t worry about spacing, you eat these leaves before they have room to grow! Each pot will give you two or three harvests before it needs to be replaced by the next one. Nutritional values will vary according to the species, but young leaves like these are packed with vitamins.
If you fancy something a little more exotic, then borrow an idea from new Peruvian restaurant Lima’s menu and grow your own red shiso (also known as perilla). They serve it with braised octopus, but it works well as an accompaniment to other meat and seafood dishes, and is good in salads – adding calcium and iron and vitamins A, C and B2.
Seeds are sown indoors in early spring, or outside once the soil temperature remains above 8 C. Plants can grow up to a metre tall if you allow them to flower, so give them about 50cm of space. Harvest leaves as you want them. (The flower buds and seeds are also edible.)
Perennial leafy vegetables are low-maintenance – plant them once and they produce for years – and can provide greens early in the year when annual veg haven’t got going. All of the following can be grown from seed, but if you want just one or two it’s often easier to buy plants.
Blood-veined sorrel is a stunning green plant with crimson leaf veins and stems. It shares the lemony tang of all sorrels, and comes into leaf early in the year. Easily grown from seed, a clump grows up to 30cm in diameter and is relatively low-growing, making this an attractive choice for a border.
Buckler leaf sorrel is the gourmet’s choice and is attractive and low-growing. Keep it under control though with regular harvesting, as it has a tendency to spread. Sorrel leaves contain vitamins and iron.
Wild rocket is a perennial with a stronger flavour than salad rocket. Seeds can be sown in spring or early autumn. This plant can grow up to 60cm, has attractive yellow flowers, and will self-seed if you let it.
Hablitzia (also known as Caucasian spinach) is hard to find, but worth the effort – it’s a climbing leafy perennial that survives Norwegian winters. If you can track down a plant, you won’t believe how early in the season it comes into leaf.
If your garden greens don’t quite produce a year-round supply, you can always turn your kitchen into an indoor farm. Microgreens are easy to grow, very healthy and a regular feature on the menus at top restaurants. (Read Mark Ridsdill Smith’s growing instructions here).
Peashoots are easy too, and they and other oriental greens can really extend your growing season.
Finally, if you have garlic cloves sprouting on the counter, push them into a pot of compost rather than throwing them out. They’ll produce a flush of fresh, garlicky greens you can snip into salads and stir-fries for a real flavour punch.