Some of my friends and readers are ordering seeds at the moment, so I thought I’d share some of my favourite varieties of greens to grow. The varieties below are all fairly easy to find at the moment from online seed sellers, and all are open pollinated, so if you end up liking them as much as I do, you can save seeds from them too.
Why grow greens?
Greens yield a lot of nutrition in a small amount of space, and take a short time to yield.
Greens can be a good staple food in a survival diet – just have some calories from stored grains or homegrown potatoes, a source of fat and protein such as bacon or goats milk, and you basically have all that you need.
To make it on to my list, all of these greens have to be easy to grow, produce some food even on poor soil, not bolt to seed right away, and be easy to prepare and cook.
All of these greens will produce in soil that is not that great, but for larger, tastier leaves I try to add some organic matter in the form of compost or manure, along with minerals to adjust the soil pH when needed. Keeping them watered in dry weather will also help.
My favourite greens
Green wave mustard greens – the earliest green
These are the earliest cooking green to be ready. I direct sow mustard greens as early as possible, and they start growing in the earliest days of spring, with small leaves ready to pick in a few weeks. As the season progresses, they have larger leaves that are easier to harvest and just as tasty as the small leaves. If you want your greens ready even earlier, you could probably start the seeds in soil blocks or trays indoors and then transplant them.
Mustard greens bolt towards the end of spring, but not before producing many tasty and nutritious meals. The flowerheads can be cooked like tiny broccoli.
My main focus for these greens is as an early spring crop, but they can also be sowed towards the end of summer, to grow quickly and provide a crop in autumn, as they are ready around 6 weeks after sowing in warm weather.
For the spring crop, I usually sow at least 25 metres (80 feet) of row to feed our family of eight.
Mustard greens have a strong bite to them when raw, and almost all wildlife ignore them. As a cooking green, just leave them whole, or chop up, there’s no need to remove the stems. Either, boil, steam, or stir fry. My favourite use for these is to first fry up bacon, stir fry the greens in the bacon fat, and then stir the crispy bacon back in. They are also good in many soups, stews, and stir fries, or just cooked like spinach as a side vegetable to any meal.
Red Russian kale – all-round staple
I start this any time from the earliest days of spring through to the middle of summer. The smallest leaves are good to add to springtime salads, and by the later days of spring the leaves are getting large and ready to use in all kinds of cooked dishes.
Kale can either be direct sown, or started in trays or soil blocks. Kale self seeded really well for me last year, so that this year I had many tiny seedlings popping up around the garden, ready to be grown to full size or transplanted.
The standard advice where I live (Tasmania, cold zone 8b) is to start kale off after the summer solstice, and to use it as an autumn/winter crop, but I find that the weather in spring grows these much better than the dry days of summer, so I sow most of mine in spring, and it just keeps growing through the summer, into autumn and winter.
If you don’t have much irrigation water, Red Russian kale is perfect to grow if planted when rains are naturally falling in spring – the roots sink right down, and it survives through the summer, looking a little sad in the driest times, but then picking up again in autumn when the rains come.
I am trying to put kale pretty much everywhere in the garden – in the garden beds, as well as under fruit trees and in far-off corners. It is such a great staple green for us. As a minimum, I’d probably want to grow around 40 metres (130 feet) of row for our family, and I even feel as though this is not enough… I don’t think it’s possible to have too much kale growing!
Kale stands through the frost right through the winter here, it will bolt to seed the following spring. The flowerheads can be used like broccoli, and the tiny leaves on the towering plants can be used in salads or cooked. The yellow flowers can be eaten in salad, or let them develop into seed for planting.
Red Russian kale is tender enough to use in salads if the stems are removed. My main use for it is as a cooking green, where the stems can be left on, or taken off. The leaves can be cooked whole, or chopped up. I serve it in the same ways as I would for mustard greens, above, but it also can be made into crispy kale ‘chips’ by coating it in some fat and salt, and then baking it at around 180ºC (350ºF) in a single layer until crisp (around 10-15 minutes) – my easy way of doing this is to add it to the vegetables towards the end of a roast, stir it through to coat in the fat and salt from the vegetables, then move to the top of the roast pan to crisp up.
Tokyo Bekana – another adaptable staple green
Tokyo Bekana is a kind of loose-leaf Chinese cabbage. This can be planted any time from spring through to early autumn. Early spring plantings tend to bolt fairly quickly once it’s ready to eat, so it’s best to plant this in succession, with several plantings over the season.
I’d usually plant around 12 metres (40 feet) of row for every succession planting, so maybe around 36 to 48 metres (120-160 feet) or more over the whole season. It’s a fast-growing green in the summer (ready in around 6 weeks after sowing) and can be snuck in as a ‘catch crop’ every time there’s a bit of space in the garden.
The leaves of Tokyo Bekana are mild enough to use as a lettuce substitute in salads, and they can also be fermented, or cooked in any of the ways I cook mustard greens. Just keep the leaves whole, or chop them up, no need to remove stems.
Freckles – the lazy gardener’s lettuce
After trying many different lettuce varieties over the years, if I had to choose from only one to plant from now onwards, I would choose freckles, also known as “flashy trouts back” after it’s beautiful spotted leaves.
Freckles grows beautifully either direct sown or started in trays. I’ve even transplanted trays that have been left unplanted much longer than ideal, and it’s still grown well.
In summers when I haven’t had much irrigation water, once established, freckles has handled the lack of water better than other lettuces, and hasn’t bolted or gone bitter in the heat. Areas that have afternoon shade are the best for growing lettuce in summer.
Freckles grows quickly and doesn’t seem to be bothered much by slugs and snails.
The taste of freckles is a mixture of red and green lettuce taste – like having a good mixed salad but with only one kind of lettuce to harvest.
Like any lettuce, freckles is best grown in succession, as lettuces do bolt to seed eventually (freckles seems a bit slower to bolt than others though), so make a new planting of it every month in between early spring and early autumn and you’ll never run out of lettuce.
I use lettuce a lot in polycultures and in between larger plants such as cabbage, zucchini, and kale, where it seems to thrive below the taller plants while not harming anything.
Dandelion and other edible weeds
I like to encourage my favourite edible weeds at the edges of my garden, under fruit trees, and pretty much everywhere. For dandelions, I taste the leaves in spring and choose the ones with the biggest, tastiest leaves, I don’t overharvest from these ones, I keep an eye on them, and once they go to seed I take their wishing flower/fairy clock seedhead and blow or sprinkle the seeds in areas where they are most wanted.
Dandelions have a deep taproot which brings up nutrients from deep in the soil, not competing with common garden vegetables, and excellent to have around fruit trees and pastures.
I prefer dandelions as a cooked green, but the mild-tasting ones also go well raw in salads or pesto in spring.
Mallow is a good cooking green, the leaves can be a bit annoying to harvest compared to giant kale leaves, but it’s worth having around.
Sow thistle is a bit like spinach. My children love it. The leaves are a reasonable size, and it can be used either raw or cooked.
Wild rocket seems to pop up every year once established, the leaves are quite small but it has a lovely taste and is so easy to grow.
For more recipes and ideas for cooking with homegrown greens, see my book A Year in an Off-Grid Kitchen