by Germaine Jenkins, CEO Farm & Market Director Fresh Future Farm, Charleston, S.C.
When someone says “eat your greens”, what comes to mind? Does it bring you back to endless family dinners, when a parent forced you to remain seated until you consumed a helping of limp, bland spinach? Maybe a bunch of chard showed up in your CSA and you felt clueless about how to prepare it. Has this trauma strained you green thumb? Do you flip past envelopes of Brassica seeds when it comes time to sow your garden?
If you come to the table or field harboring negative emotions about greens, allow Germaine Jenkins, CEO, Farm & Market Director at Fresh Future Farm in Charleston, South Carolina, to persuade you you differently. She knows that greens are a many splendor-ed thing, diverse as the day is long, and dynamic in their preparations. Old school farmers stop in their tracks to ask her which steroids she uses to grow her blue ribbon worthy greens. In this addition of Seed Skills Germaine offers are some of her time and money saving tricks for growing greens in your own backyard, plus a few good tips on how to use them in the kitchen.
Please Note: Plants that only produce leaves can often grow in full sun and part shade. Winter greens that produce roots require additional sun. While most of these greens cook fairly quickly, collard greens and kale, are rather tough and require at least thirty minutes of cooking time to become tender.
Beet Greens (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris)
We all know about the beets roots, but beet greens are a great source of magnesium. Some beet varieties, such as Green Top Bunching beets, were developed just for growing greens. You can also harvest leafy beet tops from standard varieties of beets, such as Early Wonder and Crosby Egyptian. When growing beets just for the greens, sow the seeds 1/2 inch apart and don’t thin them. Beet green benefits include generous amounts of vitamins C, A and E. A half-cup of cooked beet greens contains 30 percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin C. They are often grown for their roots or to make sugar and have more nutrients than the beet itself.
Quick Cooking Tip: Substitute them for spinach in an omelette.
Swiss Chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris)
Chard is sort of a forerunner to beets and a close cousin to spinach, close enough that in many instances it can be substituted for the latter. We’ve compiled a few suggestions here for its cultivation and storage. In South Africa, Swiss chard is called spinach.
Quick Cooking Tip: Can be steamed and used in place of cabbage, stuffed with wild rice, and topped with a warm fruit compote
Collard Greens (brassica oleracea)
I don’t think most folks would argue that collards are the most popular Southern green. The thick, slightly bitter, edible leaves. They are available year-round, but are tastier and more nutritious in the cold months, after the first frost. For best texture, the leaves are picked before they reach their maximum size, at which stage they are thicker and are cooked differently from the new leaves. Collards contain antibacterial properties and are our bandage of choice for burns and infections.
Quick Cooking Tip: Roll, chop ribbon thin, and saute in oil and seasoning to use as filling in a Southern egg roll
Kale (Brassica oleracea var. sabellica)
Curly, dinosaur (aka Lacinato), red Russian, and Redbor kale can vary from bright green or dark green all the way to purple. has tight ruffled leaves and fibrous stalks that can be difficult to chop, but easy to tear if fresh. It has a noticeable pungent flavor with peppery and bitter qualities, so seek out younger looking leaves for less bitterness. One serving of kale has more absorbable calcium than a small carton of milk. This is a good calcium source for people who are lactose-intolerant or are allergic to dairy.
Quick Cooking Tip: Their tough texture makes them great for veggie chips. Lightly season and dehydrate them.
Turnip (Brassica rapa subsp. rapa)
Turnip greens refer specifically to the stem and leafy green part of the plant. The greens pack more vitamins and minerals than the root.
Quick Cooking Tip: Southern home cooks like to saute the roots until tender and cook them with the greens.
Mustard Green (Brassica juncea)
Mustard greens have a wasabi-like taste and can used to add a spicy flavor to any dish. The condiment mustard comes from the seeds of a mustard plant so you can cut out the middleman and throw them on a sandwich.
Quick Cooking Tip: Roughly torn mustard greens, arugula, watermelon radishes, and cucumber tossed in a mustard vinaigrette was a hit recipe from Chef BJ Dennis at our Black History fundraiser, http://charlestonmag.com/black_history_in_the_macon.
Bok Choy (Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis)
The stalks resemble white celery and the leaves look more like broccoli leaves or dark Romaine lettuce. characterized by its large white stalks and crinkly green leaves, or baby bok choy, a tiny resemblance of the larger version with small, light green stalks and tender baby leaves. It is a Chinese cabbage.
Quick Cooking Tip: Add raw bok choy to salads or sandwiches.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
The chicory family is a wide and varied group-they can be loose-leafed or tightly-headed, tapered or round, smooth-leaved or frilled. They are also brightly colored, ranging from purest white and pale yellow to bright green or maroon. All members of the chicory family are favored for the bitterness that they all share, unlike lettuces which are chosen for their delicacy. Often ground with coffee beans to enhance their flavor.
Quick Cooking Tip: Saute an add to white beans for a classic Italian dish.
Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)
Related to Swiss chard and beets, spinach is in the Amaranth family and quick cooking tender green that is also great eaten raw. A 1929 comic book by Elzie Segar featured a hero named, Popeye, who got his strength from canned spinach. In 1933, the cartoon aired. Twenty years later, I was one of the kids who ate spinach because of Popeye. Who knew that one decimal place mistake (3.5 to 35) made by a German chemist, Erich von Wolf, could create a superhero?
Quick Cooking Tip: Blend spinach and carrot tops with garlic and other seasonings for winter pesto.
How to Grow Winter Greens
Check with your local land grant university for specific plant dates.
Beet greens grow best in the fall and spring when the weather is cool and moist. You can direct seed your rows planting seeds 1/2-inch deep and spaced an inch apart in rows 6 to 12 inches apart. Although the roots of this annual vegetable mature in 45 to 60 days, you can start harvesting greens at 21 days or when the plant is at least 6 inches tall. Only harvest about ½ of the leaves periodically to get continuous production. Water the new seed bed two or three times weekly and throughout the growing season so that the soil stays moist 2 inches beneath the surface. For tender sweet leaves grow beets prefer moist, not wet soil.
Germination Soil Temperatures: 50-86 degrees Fahrenheit
Sow chard seeds in early spring for a summer crop or early summer for a fall crop. Swiss chard takes approximately 55 days to reach maturity and a harvestable size or in early summer for harvesting in the fall. Soil temperatures about 50 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal for germinate; a couple of weeks after the last frost of the season is usually a good yardstick. Plant the seeds at a depth of around 1 inch and around 6 inches from one another. As the plants grow and reach a height of two to three inches, you will want to thin them out so that you have plants that are about 6 inches apart.
Germination Soil Temperature: 50-95 degrees Fahrenheit
Collard greens grow very large so direct seed in rows at least 3 feet apart. The greens grow to maturity in 60-70 days but leaves can be picked and eaten once they reach an edible size. Harvest collard greens growing in summer before bolting can occur. While 60 to 75 days is an average harvest time for growing collard greens to reach maturity, the leaves can be picked at any time they are of edible size from the bottom of the large, inedible stalks. Knowing when to plant collard greens leads to the most productive crop.
Germination Soil Temperature: 45-80 degrees Fahrenheit
Kale does not respond well to heat so the best quality is reached with late summer plantings. Seeds should be sown in ½ inch deep rows 12 inches apart. Kale grows best in full sun in moist soil that drains well. Kale is ready for harvest around 70-80 days after planting seeds. If you want your extend the life of your kale plants, pick the lower leaves when they are less than 10 inches long.
Germination/ Soil Temperature: 45-75 degrees Fahrenheit
Direct seed turnips 4 inches apart 3-4 weeks before the last frost of spring. At the proper soil temperature, germination occurs in 7 to 10 days. A fall planting of turnips often provides a sweeter and longer harvest sow seeds two months before the first frost. Rows should be spaced 18- 24 inches apart and seeds covered with a ½ inch of soil. Moist soil produces sweet turnips. Turnips mature in 50-60 days.
Germination/ Soil Temperature: 45-85 degrees Fahrenheit
Sow mustard 4-6 weeks before the last frost date. Plant mustard green seeds ½ inch deep 4-8 inches apart in rows 1-2 feet apart. Mustard green leaves are delicate so extreme cold can destroy the plants. Mustard greens are ready to harvest in 30-40 days. Plant crops so that they come to harvest before temperature average greater than 75°F. Temperatures that are lower than 40 degrees can slow germination.
Germination/ Soil Temperature: 45-85 degrees Fahrenheit
This Chinese vegetable grows best in spring and fall. Direct seed in beds ½ inch deep 6-10 inches apart or start seeds in pots for transplants. Multiple rows should be spaced 18-30 inches apart. Germination occurs within 7-10 days. It is possible to produce two crops of bok choy during the spring and again in the fall. Bok choy can tolerate cooler temperatures. Bok choy matures in 45-50 days. The smaller varieties are ready to harvest in 30 days and larger varieties mature within 6-8 weeks.
Germination/ Soil Temperature: 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit
Plant chicory seeds right after gathering them in late summer or early fall, or save for planting in the spring after the ground thaws. Though this plant does well in heavy soils, give them a better chance by turning heavy soil over and raking smooth. They can handle dry conditions very well, but do better with regular moisture. Chicory leaves will are even productive in clay soil. Direct seed 1/8 inch deep every 12 inches. Larger chicory leaves can be cooked like turnip and/or mustard greens to tame the bitter flavor.
Germination/ Soil Temperature: 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit
Spinach requires 6 weeks of cool weather for quality production. Direct seed ½ inch to 1 inch deep, covering lightly with soil. Sow about 12 seeds per foot of row, or sprinkle over a wide row or bed. Successive plantings should be made every couple weeks during early spring. Spinach does not tolerate heat but a fall crop can be established by planting in mid-August.
Germination/ Soil Temperature: 40-70 degrees Fahrenheit
Soil Preparation and Planting
The secret to Fresh Future Farm’s large, fluffy greens large is simple. Once we hit September (nearing the first frost for us), we switch from growing in a compost mix to growing all of our crops in topsoil. While you can achieve decent production in compost, collard greens, kale, turnips, mustards, bok choy, beets and spinach flourish in topsoil. After weeding and cutting last season’s crops at soil level, we top the spent beds (straw and all) with 4-6 inches of topsoil.
Be sure not to step in or apply unnecessary compaction to the newly built beds as loose soil is better for root development which in turn benefits health. We stick with the same hilled soil method for our crops. Personal gardens can use raised framed beds, large containers or even 5 gallon buckets with holes drilled in the base.
For folks who don’t have access to straw mulch, adding leaf mold is an inexpensive way to incorporate moisture into soil. Leaf mold is what happens to accumulated leaves that decompose over time. It’s an accessible resource for most and can be mixed in with topsoil or compost or used as mulch to condition the soil. Some scientific studies have shown that leaf mold improved soil moisture by 50%. For quick leaf mold, run over your leaves a few times with a lawnmower or run them through a leaf chipper. You can then moisten and pile leaves and cover with a plastic tarp. Check periodically and moisten as needed to break the leaves down.
For direct seeded winter greens, we sow seeds in prepared beds and lightly mulch with wheat straw. For transplants, we add a thick layer of straw mulch and then plant. Once the direct seeded beds start to grow, we then apply a thicker layer of mulch.
Mulching your beds make winter green maintenance a snap. Rain or snow soaks into the beds and the mulch keeps the moisture from evaporating. Yellowing leaves is a sign of nutrient deficiency, so you can fertilize the soil (we try to avoid watering established leaves) with a capful of fish emulsion in a gallon of water. Fish emulsion is a high in nitrogen and is best for plants that don’t produce edible roots. You can substitute a capful of seaweed fertilizer for turnips and beets, if needed.
Extreme Weather Protection
Winter brassicas – collard greens, kale, turnips, mustards and bok choy – develop a sweeter flavor after a frost. However, extended periods of extreme cold can damage your plants. We have successfully saved winter greens by covering them with overlapped Christmas tree branches. They serve as a custom row cover allows air flow and doesn’t need to be weighed down.
For all winter greens, we harvest using a cut and come again method. By harvesting individual leaves instead of the entire plant, you can get new growth and eat from a smaller number of plants over a longer period. In fact, we were able to harvest from the same collard greens plants over five months last year.
Methods of Packing Vegetables
There are two basic methods for packing vegetables for freezing, the tray pack and the dry pack.
Dry Pack: This is the term used to describe the packing of blanched and drained vegetables into containers or freezer bags. Pack the vegetables tightly to cut down on the amount of air in the container. If the vegetables are packed in freezer bags, press air out of the unfilled part of the bag. When packing broccoli, alternate the heads and stems. Allow ½ inch headspace (except for loose packing vegetables such as asparagus and broccoli that do not require headspace). Seal.
Tray Pack: This is the method of freezing individual pieces of blanched and drained vegetables on a tray or shallow pan, then packing the frozen pieces into a freezer bag or container. This method produces a product similar to commercially frozen plastic bags of individual vegetable pieces and is particularly good for peas, corn and beans. Pack the frozen pieces into a bag or container as soon as they are frozen. Long exposure will result in loss of moisture. Do not leave headspace. Seal.
Steps for Freezing Vegetables
1. Assemble the necessary equipment.
- Large pot (minimum capacity 2 gallons)
- A colander, wire basket, or net bag for blanching
- Large pans for cooling
- Ice cubes or ice blocks for cooling
- Cutting board, knives, hot pads
- Plastic freezer bags or other containers
- A timer or a clock with a second hand
2. Choose vegetables for freezing that are at their peak of flavor and texture. If possible, harvest the vegetables in the cool of the morning and process immediately or refrigerate the vegetables until processed to preserve quality and nutrients.
3. Carefully follow the blanching instructions. Time the blanching from when the vegetable is immersed in the vigorously boiling water. Do not add so much vegetable that the water stops boiling. Under-blanching stimulates the activity of enzymes and is worse than no blanching. Over-Blanching causes loss of flavor, color, vitamins and minerals.
Note: Very hard water can cause the toughening of vegetables. If you have problems with tough vegetables, check into the levels of hardness in your water supply.
Boiling Water Blanching:
- Use 1 gallon water for each pound of vegetables except for leafy greens, which need 2 gallons per pound.
- Bring water to rolling boil.
- Immerse wire basket, blanching basket or mesh bag containing vegetables.
- Cover pot and boil at top heat the required length of time. You may use the same blanching water two or three times. Keep it at the required level. Change the water if it becomes cloudy.
- Cool vegetables immediately in pans of ice water for the same time used for blanching. Keep water ice cold for chilling.
- Drain the vegetables thoroughly. Extra water will form too many ice crystals.
- Pack, using dry or tray pack methods. Freeze.
Water Blanching Times:
2 minutes: greens (except collards)
3 minutes: collards, turnips (cubed)
To Use Home-Frozen Vegetables
All vegetables may be cooked from the frozen state. Cook frozen vegetables in a small amount of salted water (about ½ cup or less). Cook only until tender — about half as long as if the vegetables were fresh. You can use a pressure saucepan or microwave oven for cooking frozen vegetables. Follow manufacturer’s directions for cooking time. A pack should be thawed enough to break it up before pressure cooking. If cooking vegetables in a freezer pouch in the microwave oven, be sure to split the package open first.
- Penner, Karen. Freezing Fruits and Vegetables. Kansas State University Cooperative Extension Service (1982).
- Reynolds, Susan and Paulette Williams. So Easy to Preserve. Cooperative Extension Service, University of Georgia. Revised by Elizabeth Andress and Judy Harrison (2006).
Recommended Times for Refrigerator & Freezer Food Storage
|Greens: collards, kale, mustard, spinach, Swiss chard||3-5 days|
Refrigerate perishable food immediately. The “TEMPERATURE DANGER ZONE” for most food is between 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Bacteria grow most rapidly in this range of temperatures, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes.
For best results in maintaining product quality practice the rule: FIRST IN, FIRST OUT. This means you use the oldest products first and the newest products later. A good practice in the home is to place the newly purchased products in back of the same products already on the shelf. It may help to write purchase dates on products without “open dates” on the package. Follow recommended storage times for the refrigerator and freezer.
- Use a thermometer to check that temperature remains between 34 and 40 °F at all times. Avoid frequently opening the refrigerator door, especially in hot weather.
- Wrapping perishable food prevents the loss of flavor and the mixing of flavor and odors.
- Avoid cross contamination by storing winter greens above foods that require cooking to be safely eaten.
GIC 3510, Safe Handling of Milk & Dairy Products; HGIC 3512, Safe Handling of Poultry; HGIC 3482, Safe Handling of Seafood; HGIC 3483, Selecting & Storing Fruits and Vegetables; HGIC 3523, Storing Meats & Seafood or HGIC 3064, Freezing Meats & Seafood.
- Minch, Daryl L. Home Storage of Foods Part I: Refrigerator and Freezer. Rutgers Cooperative Extension, The State University of New Jersey.
- Delaware Sea Grant, University of Delaware. Fresh Seafood. [WWW. document]. URL http://www.ocean.udel.edu/mas/ seafood/fresh.html
(From Crop stories No.5)