Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What You Need to Know about Growing Greens

For this post, I have to give an anonymous shout-out to one of my friends who asked about techniques for growing lettuce, or, more specifically, greens. (I use the term "lettuce" to mean only certain varieties of leafy greens, while "greens" to me also encompasses the tasty, hearty leaves that are sometimes called "potherbs" because they cook up well.)

If you grew up in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s, your mental picture of lettuce is probably of a head of iceberg lettuce. While this kind of thing is ideal for cutting into wedges and making a "so old it's hip again" lettuce wedge salad, head lettuces of any kind are often not your most efficient use of your gardening time or money, to say nothing of the fact that you are neglecting an entire group of greens that will just grow and grow for an entire season.

Let's talk a little about the basic types of greens, or lettuces.  Most common, as I suggested, is the head lettuce. Iceberg is one such variety, but so is romaine and bibb.  These lettuces grow a head that you then cut off at the soil line. The benefit, obviously, is that you have an entire head to make a large, family salad, and many of these lettuces have highly-desirable flavor profiles that are mild enough to make them great for sandwich wraps and to serve as a background for the traditional tossed salad. The downfall is that, once you cut the plant off at the soil, it is probably done. Romaine will often regrow at least once, and some of the others may send up a few additional leaves, but your primary harvest is done.

The second type of green has the homey name of "cut and come again." These are greens that do not form heads, but instead send up individual leaves for you to harvest. These include some of the heartier, more flavorful greens, like kale (seen in the photo), spinach, and arugula. The downfall of these greens is that you may be standing over your lettuce bed trimming and trimming and trimming to get a decent-sized salad.  The benefits, though, are incredible.

Let's start with the fact that these greens let you really customize how much you harvest. Instead of taking the whole head, you can easily pop outside and get a handful of greens for your sandwich, something I do almost every day. They also really let you decide the stage of development at which you like your greens best. Here's a tip: if you think you don't like kale, grow some and harvest it when it is no bigger than a silver dollar instead of waiting for the big, thick, curly leaves. The flavor is actually sweet, with just a little bit of bit. It has many of the benefits of microgreens, just a little older. These greens are also very container-friendly, so you can easily grow a pot full on a windowsill or a back patio as long as you get a lot of sun. (Note: I do grown greens in the winter, too, since they are very cold tolerant, but they grow much more slowly in our sunroom, even with a grow light over them.)

Which brings me to the primary point: these greens are ultra-sustainable. Cut them (without killing an entire plant, hence the snip-snip-snip technique), and they will regrow and regrow for months at a time. You've done one planting for a good 6-8 months of harvesting. And these greens are really economical: this bed full of kale that you see above comes from a single pack of organic seeds (that I bought at Whole Foods, so I'm hardly low-balling this calculation) that I bought for $1.89. Bags of pre-washed, organic, baby greens sell around here for about $0.88 per ounce, and I've been bringing in a half ounce to an ounce every day.  I only need to harvest three ounces to be in the black with this crop, and I passed that the first week I could harvest.

So, there you have it. Hopefully, most of what you ever wanted to know about growing greens, sustainably!

The Analysis

Fast: These greens grow quickly in the summer, ready for initial harvest in 3-4 weeks; they take longer in the winter.

Cheap: See the calculation above; these are almost instantly profitable.

Good: Not only are these little guys tasty, but they give you a lot of nutrition and will keep doing so for the entire summer and well into fall!

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