“You know you got to give me some of those greens,” he said.
“Oh, you like greens?”
How bold. This guy had just shown up at our door to fix a problem with our internet connection, and these were his first words. Our garden is in the front yard right by where he’d parked.
“Yeah, for sure!” I said. “I didn’t know anyone else ate greens around here.”
“I grew up in Chicago, but I spent summers with my grandma in Georgia.”
I let him get to work, and I happily walked out and harvested collards, chard, and kale.
Moroho is sentimental and nostalgic for me. Moroho is the word for greens in Lesotho, the small country in Africa where my wife and I met, where we both were living as Peace Corps teachers, and where we ate moroho almost every day. It’s much more than just another vegetable.
Maybe you are one of the few others around here who eats greens and who therefore would love to have it coming straight out of the garden. It’s the only way.
While I learned to grow greens in Lesotho, I’ve been growing them back home in Southern California for about ten years now.
In Lesotho greens grew best in the summer, but in Southern California greens grow best in winter, plus the cooler periods of fall and spring. They suffer if you ask them to grow during the heat of summer, unless you live in the marine layer right on the beach.
My greens are so happy right now, in the rainy, mild weather of mid-January. This is the prime of their life. They taste sweet and stand tall. In summer, they don’t taste as good, they’re constantly wilting no matter how much water you give them, and they often go to flower fast — if you live inland like me; I’m twenty miles from the beach.
I start sowing seeds of greens in August or September, continuing through fall, through winter, into spring, stopping by May. At that point, whatever plants I have in the garden I care for as far into summer as they’ll allow (how long will June gloom last this year?), but I don’t sow or plant new greens again until at least August. Every year’s a bit different, but that’s the general pattern that I’ve found successful in gardens from two to twenty miles from the beach in Southern California.
Cabbage is an exception here. I include cabbage in the greens category. But only sow it between August and about October. That means you can plant seedlings from September through about January. Cabbage is slow growing so if you plant later, you’ll likely deal with lots of aphids, the plant will form only a small head, and it will not taste as sweet as you hope.
I’ve found chard to be the most tolerant green to our summer warmth. I’ve grown it all the way through the summer occasionally. But usually I just switch to eating sweet potato greens during the heat of the summer. Even though chard will tolerate heat, sweet potato greens adore it.
This last summer, however, I brought some Lacinato (dinosaur) kale through the summer season, and it continues to produce well here in its second winter — and taste better than it did in summer. So it’s now the same age as my daughter, but look who’s taller:
(See this fun update: “How tall can dinosaur kale get?”)
I haven’t met a type of green that doesn’t grow well here or that I don’t love to eat, as long as it’s grown in the right season. The types I’ve grown include kale and chard and collards, plus mustard, spinach, turnip greens, cabbage, and choy.
But I always plant a mixture because that’s how I like to eat it. I grow mostly sweet stuff like kale, collards and cabbage, and then a little spicy or bitter stuff like mustard and chard. That combination and proportion tastes best to me.
Sowing and planting
My favorite way to sow, plant, and space the greens in the garden is to start them thick by sowing or planting them in a crowded way, and then removing some plants once they’re about six inches high in order to give more space to the other plants. I eat those thinnings. (Those young plants taste the best.)
After young plants have been thinned, you end up with individual plants spaced at least a hand’s width apart, now able to stretch and grow larger.
The spacing always depends somewhat on which type of greens we’re talking about. Chard gets much larger than kale, for instance, and so it needs more space.
You might notice that there are lettuce plants near many of my greens plants, and that’s because they both enjoy growing in much the same conditions. For specifics on lettuce though, see my post, “Growing and harvesting lettuce in Southern California.”
Watering and pests
Greens don’t need much more or less water than any other vegetable. In the fall and spring, I water my greens mostly with drip lines, but it’s good to occasionally wash off their leaves.
When you do you often knock off some pests, like aphids or bagrada bugs. Don’t be afraid to spray the plants with a hard jet of water to blast these insects off leaves. It won’t hurt the plant, and it disrupts the pests.
You’ll find that these pests have a season. They’re not around all year. Don’t give up on plants that harbor a few. If you do some water blasting and you don’t spray pesticides, then predatory insects and birds will do some control, the weather will change, and in time the pests will, as if magically, vanish. Happens every year.
Also, some years are just worse than others. Last year I had tons of aphids. This year I have almost none. Usually, their population is highest in March regardless.
Mulching and harvesting
I like to keep some mulch beneath my plants. Rough compost or wood chips work well. This makes it easier come harvest time, when there’s often no washing necessary because no soil has splashed up onto the leaves’ undersides.
You never need to harvest a whole greens plant. You pick outer, lower leaves and the plant keeps growing new ones from the center. Just be sure to leave a couple leaves in that central part of the plant and it will continue to grow well.
After some months, the weather will warm and the plant may shoot up to produce a flower stalk: “bolting” it’s called. And it’s natural. The leaves start to taste bitter at this time. Leave the flowers if you don’t need the space because bees and other insects that are helpful to your garden feed on them.
By the way, you can use this method of picking outer leaves with cabbage too. I always do. This way, you get to eat cabbage leaves for the couple months before the plant finally provides a head.
Unconventional and wild greens
Want to get really down to earth? Expand your definition of greens. Include leaves from broccoli and cauliflower plants. They taste very similar to kale and collards.
Or poke about the weedy corners of your yard, or take a hike in the hills, and you’ll find delicious wild greens growing in winter to add to the ones in your garden.
I didn’t add any unconventional or wild greens to the bag I harvested for that visiting technician, but yesterday I picked some of that wild mustard and nettle to add to our own dinner greens. I learned to pick various wild greens in Lesotho. Guess I learned almost everything I know about greens during my years there.
Time for dinner:
I don’t imagine it looks enticing to you, but you get used to it over the years. And eventually, you got to have some.
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