Most of us do not eat as many vegetables as experts recommend, especially lettuce or leafy greens.
But they are so important because they provide healthy fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other substances, many of which prevent disease.
In my neck of the woods, (zone 8, maybe 7), it is time to plant leafy greens for a late fall, early winter harvest.
Considering the prices and all the recent health recalls for leafy greens, I am looking forward to eating some specimens grown in my own backyard.
Growing leafy greens
It is not difficult to grow your own fresh, leafy greens if you pay attention to timing.
These delicate vegetables do not like extreme heat. High temperatures cause the plant to have a bitter taste.
For spring planting, start seeds inside 4 – 6 weeks before your average last frost date, ideally when the soil temperature is at least 40ºF.
Most leafy green seeds will not germinate in soil above 80F, so keep this in mind, even for a fall planting.
Soil acidity is especially important and should have a pH of 6.0 to 6.5, (local extension services can help you determine your soil’s pH).
Use good garden fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, and add organic matter to your garden.
I use nutrient-filled Foothills Compost.
Give your plants at least an inch of water a week if rainfall is not sufficient.
Tips for growing greens
COLLARDS – While Georgians plant collards in the fall, you can set out store-bought transplants in the spring. Give them 10 hours of sun each day, in well-drained soil. Space plants 12-18-inches apart.
SWISS CHARD – Needs rich, well-drained soil and full sun. Sow seeds outdoors, 2-3 weeks before the last spring frost. Plant 1/2″ deep and 1″ apart. It will grow all summer in milder climates.
KALE – If you plant in the spring, make sure it has some shade as the summer heats up. Sow seeds directly in the garden, 1/4″ deep, in rows 18″ apart.
MUSTARD GREENS – Needs a milder climate, not very heat tolerant. Likes full sun, but will take some shade. Plant in well-drained soil, 10″ apart.
SPINACH – Is NOT heat tolerant. I even tried a “heat-tolerate” variety, New Zealand Spinach, and it still cannot take 90ºF summers. Space young plants 6″ apart, in rows 12″ apart. Mulch to keep the soil cool. Pick while leaves are rounded to avoid a bitter taste. The younger leaves are better.
LETTUCE – sow seeds into the garden 2-4 weeks before the last spring frost, 1/4″ deep. Space every 10-inches. They can take a light frost, during fall planting.
This fall I planted arugula, radishes, cabbage, and three varieties of lettuce.
There are hundreds of varieties of lettuce grown throughout the world.
Of the lettuce grown in the United States, there are four general classifications, BUTTERHEAD, CRISP HEAD, LEAF, and ROMAINE.
When shopping for any kind of lettuce a general rule of thumb is to choose those that are crisp and free of blemishes.
As with all greens, lettuce should be washed and either drained completely or blotted with a paper towel to remove excess moisture.
A SALAD SPINNER uses centrifugal force to remove water from leafy greens, it is a real time-saver for this process.
I usually buy romaine hearts. I do not open the package of (3) until I am ready to use one.
I wash all three at once; tightly wrap the remaining hearts in paper towels; then, place in an air-tight zip lock bag.
Usually, they will keep for 5 – 7 days in the crisper drawer of my refrigerator.
Never allow lettuce to soak in water as it will soften leaves.
All lettuce is low in calories but loaded in calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C.
Keep in mind the darker green leaves contain the most nutrients.
Nutritional Components of Leafy Greens
Vitamin C and flavonoids are examples of beneficial nutrients that are particularly vulnerable to heat.
Therefore, the best raw foods are likely to be those with high levels of these fragile nutrients.
Leafy green vegetables are rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants to help the plant deal with the damaging effect of sunlight.
Raw foods do not tend to raise blood sugar levels since they contain fewer simple sugars.
KALE- CONTAINS 200% OF YOUR DAILY NEED FOR CERTAIN VITAMINS & MINERALS.
WHEN COOKED, IT DROPS TO 89%
HOWEVER, all of their iron is the NON-HEME form.
HEME IRON – found in meat, is easily absorbed in our bodies.
NON-HEME IRON – found in plants, is NOT easily absorbed.
For this reason, vegetarians and vegans are recommended to consume TWICE more iron than meat-eaters.
But adding vitamin C source to each meal increases the NON-HEME IRON absorption up to six-fold!
Other health benefits
Leafy greens encourage the production of nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels.
Relaxed blood vessels are wider, reducing the risk of clotting, and lowering the chances of heart disease.
Carotenoids, antioxidants, and flavonoids found in leafy greens protect from most cancer.
The high level of magnesium and low glycemic index that can be found in greens is ideal for preventing and treating diabetes.
Studies show if you increase your intake of greens by just one serving per day, your risk of diabetes decreases by 9%.
Leafy greens in the kitchen
Most greens can be eaten at any stage of maturity, so pick leaves anytime and toss into salads, soups, casseroles, and side dishes.
Mustard greens have a peppery flavor. When cooking the smell is distinct and strong. Tone them down by adding a little vinegar or lemon juice just before they are done, or steam them in a small amount of water.
Spinach is my favorite leafy green and I prefer it raw. However, my spinach-artichoke recipe is perfect for frozen spinach.
Rich in vitamins A, C, and foliate; cooked spinach also is high in calcium.
Kale chips are a great snack. Wash and dry kale leaves. Remove the thick stem. Cut down into large pieces, spray with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake in a 350ºF oven for about 10 minutes.
Combine all your leafy greens to make my Salad with Chicken Bites RECIPE BELOW.
Or try any of my salad dressing recipes on your own leafy green dinner.
Salad with Chicken Bites
- 3 Tyson's Southern Breast Tenderloins
- 1 Romaine heart
- 2 Radishes
- 2 peeled carrots
- 2 cooked, hard-boiled eggs
- 2 oz. shredded cheddar cheese
- 6 cherry tomatoes
- Heat oven to 425º
- Place chicken tenderloins on a baking sheet lined with non-stick foil
- While chicken is cooking, prepare salads by chopping and evenly dividing lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, carrots
- Peel and slice one hard-boiled egg for each salad
- Top with shredded cheddar cheese - NOT the pre-shredded stuff but fresh cheese.
- Cut cooked chicken into bite-size portions and divided evenly between salads.
- Serve dressing on the side to control calories
- Top salads with bacon bits, croutons, or sunflower seeds.