I know “Leafy Greens” is a pretty wide subject but it is easily broken down into a couple categories and then a few sub categories. The easiest categories to divide are Non-Brassicas and Brassicas. We will talk about Brassicas later.
Non-Brassicas can then be sub divided, loosely, into Chicories, such as Endive, Escarole, and Radicchio, Lettuces including Dandelions, Romaine, and Butterhead, and Goosefoot Greens like Swiss Chard, Amaranth, Spinach and Beat Greens. There are a couple other sub categories that I am not too familiar with that would include edible chrysanthemum and some valerian; rather than give you false information I will skip these for now.
Chicories just might be my favorite salad making greens, the different flavor and textures are great! Chicory can be divided again into a few categories Asparagus Chicory(not to be confused with Asparagus), Root Chicory, used to make a coffee like drink, Witloof Chicory that is grown for large roots, then forced to grown tops in cool dark winters, and Leafy Chicory, my favorite salad greens.
Since I am most familiar with Escarole, Endive, and Radicchio, that’s what you get to hear about today.
Endive can be harvested young although it takes about 95 days to reach full maturity. It can be a little bitter, but that is a good thing. The bitter taste is actually the vitamins in the leaves. To reduce the bitterness (and nutrition) you can blanch endive by carefully tying the outer leaves up around the center leaves with twine. Do this when the plant is dry or you could end up with rotting plants (compost, yay!). After about 2 weeks check the plants, the center leaves will be light green to white. If you check after 2 weeks you could end up with rotting plants again.
Endive can be planted in the early spring as it is pretty frost hardy. You will want to give the plants plenty of space; 12-18 inches between. The thinnings can be eaten as micro-greens in salad. Endive is a cool weather crop and will be very prone to bolt once it gets hot. You can however plant your spring crop and then plant a second crop close to fall. To harvest the greens you cut the greens about two inches above the root. The flavor is best after a frost. Endive will keep well in a root cellar too. (Better than most greens anyways) Endive can be eaten raw in salads or the darker leaves can be sautéed too.
Escarole has the same guidelines as Endive. The leaves are not a curly as Endive, they are more broad and wavy rather.
Radicchio again the same guidelines as the previous however, this needs the cool fall weather to change color from green to shades of red. The shape will also change much closer to harvest as well.
There are a few different varieties of all of theses, choose one that will best suit your growing seasons.
The Lettuces are another close group with a ton of variety too. The basic groups of lettuce go as follows; Butterhead, Celtuce, Crisphead, Loose Leaf and Romaine.
The Butterhead is a good medium lettuce. It’s not a tight head like Crisphead lettuces, yet it forms a loose head, tighter than Loose Leaf. These are very easy to grow and as most greens in this family, like the cooler temps.
Celtuce, I would put in the Celery family rather than here. Basically its the little bit of leaves at the top of the celery plant.
Crisphead lettuce is the most boring of all to me. I really don’t care for much about it. This is the very popular Iceberg Lettuce that is a cheap lettuce that lasts a while, and transports well, which is why it’s a popular choice for a lot of restaurants.
Romaine has sturdy leaves that grow straight up in a tight bunch rather than curling to form a round head.
Loose Leaf lettuces are the least cold hardy, but will preform the better than the rest in warm weather.
Lettuces prefer very well worked and nutritious soil. Their roots don’t work hard to look for nutrients, so if it’s not readily available you will have pretty weak lettuce. Lettuce will bolt when it gets hot out, so planting early will give you the best yield before the summer heat. Thin as the plants get bigger, the thinnings make great salads too!
To save lettuce seeds allow a plant or two to bolt. You will have a tall stalk that can grow up to 5 feet tall. At the top will form flowers and then seeds. Allow the flowers to mature and die. Then carefully cut to top of the stalk and allow to dry. A careful shake in a paper bag will drop the seeds.
Dandelions are not only one of my favorite flowers (not kidding) and the start of little tiff’s because my husband finds them to a noxious weed (as most do) and wants them gone. We finally came to a compromise, he can only kill the ones in the yard, if they are in my flower bed they get to live. Dandelion leaves are great in salad! In fact they are classified as a part of the Lettuce family. I will write more about all the wonderful things that dandelions can do, (including make wine) a little later (done! found here).
Goosefoot greens are slightly new to me. I grew my first crop of Amaranth last year. It did wonderful; about 6 feet tall or more! These plants do very well in hot weather with very fertile soil. The leaves can be eaten as steamed or sautéed vegetables and the seeds can be carefully collected by placing a paper bad over the rope-like flowers and giving it a gently shake. Amaranth seeds can be eaten as a grain or made like a porridge.
Beet Greens are great especially if you only have so much space in your garden; you can eat the beet greens and skip planting Swiss Chard!.( or plant both if you like).
Spinach is planted the same as the others (12inches apart, 18 inch rows) and will do good in partial shade. When the days get long and hot the spinach will be quick to bolt. When this happens the leaves will soon get tough and bitter, the plant will also quit producing leaves. You can pull the plants and use the space to plant another crop. I sometimes plant green beans after I pull the spinach as the beans will quickly “catch up” in the summer heat. Spinach is also slower to germinate so planting a quick growing plant such as radishes in the same row will give you yet another crop in the same space and will help mark your row until the spinach is up. When you plant in succession like this be sure you are getting enough compost in your soil so the nutrients don’t get depleted.
Spinach is one of the few greens in this family that can be stored at length when quickly blanched and frozen.
Swiss Chard is a great addition to a garden. I like to plant mine in a flower bed. I plant a rainbow variety, which gives me wonderful green leaves with brightly colored stems of yellow, pink, red and orange. Chard can be planted much closer together compared to others and will produce all summer long. I like to harvest once the leaves get about 6 inches tall. I cut the stems just above the ground and the plant continues to produce.