Beet, mustard and dandelion greens. Boston, bibb and butter lettuce. Romaine, collards, Swiss chard, arugula — you get the idea. The plethora of leafy vegetables available at virtually every grocery store and farmers market is enough to make your thumbs turn green.
Maybe you've tried a variety and stock your crisper drawer with leafy greens on a regular basis. Others, however, are at a loss. It only takes a few adventurous gambles that end up as wilted garbage fodder to make a chef vow to stick to tried-and-true varieties.
But if you know how to make these nutritious and delicious greens a part of your daily meal plan without losing them to the quirks of your refrigerator, you may want to try something new. Further, did you know you can ferment your own leafy greens to make them even more nutritious and keep them for months at a time right on your counter?
Taking a look at one of the first steps toward incorporating more greens into your life — the garden — you'll find leafy greens to be one of the easiest veggies to grow. Lettuce comes in numerous varieties, including red and green leaf, buttercrunch and butterhead, iceberg, Romaine and mesclun, the so-called "fancy" lettuce.
What these all bring to your table is a lovely combination of frilly and flat, crispy and buttery and an array of hues from red to green. They're high in fiber, which helps food move more smoothly through your colon. Vegetarian Nutrition says they're:
"Rich in folic acid, vitamin C, potassium and magnesium, as well as containing a host of phytochemicals, such as lutein, beta-cryptoxanthin, zeaxanthin and beta-carotene …
Because of their high magnesium content and low glycemic index, green leafy vegetables are also valuable for persons with type 2 diabetes."1
If you like the idea of "eating local," you can't do much better than your own backyard. Every plant-based food likes good soil, so make sure yours has the nutrients your plants will need, and no chemical fertilizers or polymers.
Organic dirt is good, but the best mixes contain lightweight organic matter and drain well. Planet Natural suggests a simple, even mix of peat moss or mature compost, plain topsoil and perlite.2 Keep in mind that plain garden dirt is often too heavy and hard, so plants can't thrive.
Generally speaking, most lettuce varieties are cool-weather crops, meaning they thrive on 60- to 65-degree F days. As for the soil, Heirloom Organics says:
"Lettuce is tolerant of a wide range of soils, but prefers well-drained, cool [and] loose soil with plentiful moisture and pH 6.2 to 6.8. Sensitive to low pH. Lime to at least 6.0. To encourage tender and tasty growth, make sure location is rich in organic compost matter. Amend prior to planting if needed."3
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has divided the U.S. into color-coded zones separating regions of plant hardiness in average winter temperatures (or, gardeners can simply type in their ZIP codes).
If your plant hardiness zone is palest blue, for instance, you're in zone 5b, meaning the soil at its coldest will be -10 to -15 degrees F below zero.4
While young lettuce loves the sun, the paradox is that too much heat — say, 75 degrees F or warmer during the day — will encourage the plants to bolt or "go to seed," meaning they jump-start to the end of the growing season by shooting upward and flowering. Bolted lettuce is bitter, slightly tough and often rusty.
To offset bolting, it helps to plant your organic lettuce seeds (or baby plants, called seedlings) in areas of your garden where it's shaded for part of the day.
Because they like cool weather, lettuce seeds can be planted directly into your garden as soon as you can get a hoe in the ground in early spring. In the fall, prepare the soil by working in some compost or manure and raking it evenly.
You can also start seeds indoors around six weeks before the last frost to give baby lettuce (and other veggies) an advance on the season, especially if yours is a short one. Warmer climates can squeeze in a late greens planting; just keep in mind that mature plants don't take frost as well as seedlings. Tips for growing lettuce include:
• Lettuce seeds have shallow roots, so they only need 6 or 8 tablespoons of soil each, whether you put them in a shallow pan of soil or (clean) separate pots.
• Seeds need light to germinate, so sprinkle just a tiny amount of soil over them.
• They take up minimal space on a (warm) sunny window ledge or under a grow light.
• Water or spritz them lightly, and they'll begin popping up within a matter of days.
• If you get a "freak" cold snap, seeds will do okay under the ground; seedlings can be covered with plastic cups overnight. Don't forget to remove them in the morning so the plants can get the sunlight they need.
When they get two to three leaves each, "harden" the seedlings by reducing their water and placing them in a cool place for a few days. Then set the seedlings 12 to 18 inches apart (depending on the variety), thinning out the smaller ones.
In 60 to 70 days, you can begin cutting off the outer leaves so the inner leaves can continue to grow and produce. "Micro" greens are simply smaller leaves. You can also harvest an entire plant, cutting them about an inch from the ground. Harvesting every other one allows those remaining to get larger.
Grown similarly to lettuce, arugula and watercress have a faster growing season, so harvesting can be done sooner and more often.
Brassica veggies like cabbage can be planted from seed or transplanted in the spring 12 to 24 inches apart, with rows 18 to 36 inches apart. Growing them in the fall gets your pantry ready for hearty winter meals.
In the garden, they need consistent water with good drainage and lots of organic matter. Floating row covers (fabric) help protect them from pests. Mature cabbage heads can split when there's rain after a dry period. Avoid this by choosing a split-resistant variety, spacing the plants close together, or twisting the heads to break some of the roots.
Also, mulch them to retain moisture, rotate the crop every third year, and control pests such as aphids and worms using natural methods.
Whether or not you grow your own greens, you can purchase something like the presently trending kale, collard greens or Swiss chard and ferment them as easily as cabbage, using as few as two or three jars at a time in just a few hours. The following method was inspired by a blog called Simply Homemaking.5
Start by making your brine, which consists of 1 quart of chlorine-free water and 3 tablespoons of sea salt or kosher salt per jar. (Table salt has additives.) Allow the mixture to boil, then cool it to room temperature.
• Soak your greens in large amounts of cold water, then rinse them again. A salad spinner saves time in removing the excess water, in batches, with a large pan on the side to put them into.
• Strip thick ribs from the leaves, then slice them lengthwise into narrow strips. Keep a few leaves intact to place on top so the others stay under the brine.
• Sterilize your jars (large mouth jars work best), rings, lids, a large-mouth funnel and a stone the size of a child's fist to hold the veggies under the brine in each jar. Place them in a large stock pot and boil, removing the jars with a clamp.
• Put a teaspoon of caraway seeds into the bottom for flavor and fill each jar with greens, packing them down tightly, mashing them with a pestle. When full to an inch below the lowest ring of the jar, place a whole leaf on top, then a stone.
• Pour brine into the jars to just below the lowest ring. A clean knife insert on the side will help remove air bubbles before adding the lid tightly.
Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage. Kimchi is the Korean version of pickled vegetables with the frequent addition of spices to liven your palate. Lacto-fermentation is the process created by "good" bacteria called Lactobacillus, which is present on all plants, especially those closest to the ground, and can convert sugars into lactic acid. As Cultures for Health explains:
"Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria … Beyond preservation advantages, lacto-fermentation also increases or preserves the vitamin and enzyme levels, as well as digestibility, of the fermented food. In addition, lactobacillus organisms are heavily researched for substances that may contribute to good health."6
The Cultured Club tells the story of a woman who saw for herself what fermented veggie juice, aka pickling brine, looked like under a microscope:
"Through the eye of the lens, there dancing in front of me, I could see these 'living foods' buzzing, teeming and vibrating with life. When you eat these living, fermented foods, you feel the 'life' they impart. These are high vibrational foods which have gone through a process of 'lacto-fermentation.' This is where natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid and you can clearly see them continually buzz around."7
Lacto-fermentation is an ancient practice used across millennia and cultures to preserve food. Combinations of vegetables can introduce different levels of heat and flavor, such as fermenting cabbage with spicier greens such as turnip or mustard greens. However, brassica vegetables are goitrogens, so begin eating them in small portions. Below is simple recipe for lacto-fermented collard dip, from Cultures for Health,8 which you can tweak however you wish.
Lacto-Fermented Collard Dip
1. 8 cups fresh, young collard leaves, washed and coarsely chopped
2. 4 cloves garlic, peeled
3. 1 to 1/2 tsp. sea salt
4. 3 Tbsp. whey
5. Filtered water, as needed
1. Steam collards over salted water until cooked but still somewhat firm. Drain and cool them completely.
2. Place the cooled collards leaves with the garlic, salt and whey into a food processor and pulse until the mixture is slightly chunky.
3. Transfer the dip to a sanitized, wide-mouth quart jar. Add more water if necessary to cover, but packing it down with a spoon will create more juice.
4. Cover with an air-tight lid and set it aside to ferment, room temperature, for two to three days, away from drafts and direct sunlight.
5. Place the dip in cold storage and it will keep for several weeks.