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For Cool Season Success, Try Growing Greens

Mustard in Bowls
Cut 'Tendergreen' mustard, a tasty cross with spinach that holds up well in our planting zone.

By Lisa Brunette

This is our third year trying earnestly to grow as much food as we can, and it's been our best year yet.

Anthony and I have both made a metric ton of mistakes, but we've learned from them. We experiment, measure the results, and change the approach if needed. Now, three years into this food garden thing, we're really starting to get somewhere. Case in point: We've been eating food from the garden nearly every day since the beginning of April 2022. I keep a food journal, and in it I note whether each meal included food from the garden. So 'G' if one meal contained garden food, 2G for two, and 3G if all three meals contained garden produce. Most days since April have clocked in at 2 and 3G's.

Speaking of G's, if this year had a garden star, it would be the greens. 

Tendergreen Mustard Harvest May 22 22
A hefty 'Tendergreen' mustard harvest.

Besides early asparagus, our first foods in spring were arugula and then a magical new mustard variety I've discovered called 'Tendergreen.' It's crossed with spinach, and it looks so much like that well-known green that my mother was convinced it was spinach even after I assured her it was mustard. It's less mustard-y than most mustard greens as well, with a rustic flavor that somehow picks up the best of mustard green and the best of spinach, all in one green.

Unlike spinach, it grows well in our sometimes-steamy springs, holding out before bolting in the heat. It's more robust, less delicate than the spinach I've tried to grow in the past. It also germinated at an impressive rate - the 'germination rate' refers to the percentage of seedlings produced per the amount of seed. This crop was so productive, it seemed as if every seed sprouted. We began harvesting it in late April and continued through late May, with a full crop and plenty of greens to share with family and friends.

Tendergreen Mustard Spring 2022
'Tendergreen' mustard filling out the row.

'Tendergreen' is definitely a new favorite for me, and it's already on my list for next spring. I sourced these seeds from Seed St. Louis, a non-profit that has been a highly valuable resource in my crash-course on food gardening in the Midwest. They do a great job of recommending - and in this case providing access to - seed varieties that do well in our 6a/6b zone with noted humidity and cycles of heavy rain, along with clay soils.

Since lettuces come later in spring, 'Tendergreen' and arugula gave us the basis for early spring salads, a welcome addition to our menus after the long winter. The arugula is best at the baby green stage; it tends to bolt right away as soon as the temps climb. While I love arugula's pungent aroma, I'll probably take a break from it this fall and next spring in light of the 'Tendergreen' discovery, not to mention a new kale variety that also kept us in the green.

Arugula Spring 2022
Baby arugula growing on the northeast side of our house.

The kale variety is 'Red Russian,' which I sourced from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. When I first started food gardening in earnest in 2020, I bought commercial seeds or seeds from a seller in Iowa. But then I hit upon Southern Exposure. Maybe this is due to climate change, but their Virginia base seems to be a great corollary growing environment for St. Louis, judging by how well nearly every variety I've tried has performed here.

I've been amazed at how long-lasting 'Red Russian' is. We began harvesting it the first week of May and are still snipping leaves for dishes the week after Independence Day. It's a delicious kale with red stems and large, soft leaves.

Red Russian Kale May 22
'Red Russian' kale.

Another green we've been eating this spring that you might not immediately think of as a green are turnips. That powerhouse veg does double-duty, as both the green and bulbous root are edible. The greens taste best early in the spring before they get too fibrous and are especially good in stir-fries and soups.

Turnip Greens May 22

The roots are a great, low-glycemic substitute for potatoes, especially if you're waiting for that later tuber crop anyway. You can eat them roasted, mashed, and fried. They lend a hearty, peppery flavor to spring dishes.

Turnips

Turnips are also incredibly easy, reliable growers. I chose the 'Purple Top White Globe' variety, again from Seed St. Louis. I sowed the seeds directly into the garden soil in early May and harvested turnips until they were gone by mid-June. 

Turnip Row Spring 2022
A good turnip crop.

Another surprise success this year is Swiss chard.

It's one of my favorite greens, though sadly, Anthony has to avoid it due to the oxalate content, so I only grow one small row for myself. I'd tried to grow a variety called 'Ruby Red' from Seed St. Louis as a late fall crop in 2021, but the oppressive heat lingered too far into August, and the seeds didn't germinate. So when these 'Bright Lights' shot up like sentinels here in the garden in early spring, I was caught off guard. Now I know what season to plant these seeds! I highly recommend trying Swiss chard if you're not otherwise keen on greens. It's not bitter at all; it has a kind of sweet flavor, and the yummy stalks are a great substitute for celery when eaten raw. Swiss chard is also super photogenic.

Swiss Chard May 18 2022
Swiss chard 'Bright Lights,' posing for a photo.

Besides the cooking greens, we had success again this year with two salad greens we tried in 2021 and kept on the list: 

  1. 'Bronze Arrow' loose leaf lettuce - a variety that allows you to "cut and come again"
  2. 'Jericho' romaine 

Both of these came from Southern Exposure, stand up well to early spring heat and humidity, and are fairly easy to grow.

This, our third year as food gardeners, also marks the first time we had a serious surplus, enough to try to preserve for the winter months. Here's the full list from the early-spring 'greens' season:

  • Kale chips
  • Dried Swiss chard
  • Arugula, mustard, and Swiss chard blanched and frozen
Greens for Freezing
Greens ready for the freezer.

After this string of successes, I'm fully on board the greens train, and I highly recommend you think about adding more greens to your own gardening list for this fall's cool season or next spring. Greens are so good for us, providing essential nutrients the modern diet often lacks. Greens are easy to grow, with a variety of ways to use them and preserve them for later. My only caveat is that we did experience a long stretch of cooler-than-normal spring weather, which likely had a positive effect on these greens, which prefer cooler temps. Not every year will be that conducive to greens.

I sow all seed direct since I don't have a greenhouse or space available to plant seedlings that my digging-prone cat can't get into. I use the timings listing in the Seed St. Louis planting calendar, and they've held me in good stead, so if you're in the area and looking for guidance, check it out. If you're not in the river city, count your blessings, as it's 102° F today (38° C)! Seriously, though, if I were you, I'd seek out a gardening non-profit in your area; this can't be the only planting calendar in existence.

You're also welcome to peruse my veggie garden log, where I've listed everything I've tried to grow over the past three years, when I sowed the seeds, what soil amendments were used (from internal, organic sources), and what the results were, all in a super-nerdy spreadsheet... because DATA. As you can see from the 2022 tab, I'm full-on committed to greens again for the fall cool season and have already put in my order with Southern Exposure. I'm trying several new varieties specifically because they promise to do well for fall planting:

  • Two new lettuces, 'Anuenue (which means rainbow in Hawaiian) Batavian' crisphead and 'Cosmo' romaine
  • 'Osaka purple' mustard
  • 'Amber globe' turnip - pretty durn excited about these beauties
  • 'Vates' kale - looks tasty!

How about you? Have I convinced you to try growing greens? It's a great way to get started on the garden path if you haven't already...

Happy homesteading, my lovelies! May the soil feed your soul.

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