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Singin’ the praises of growin’ garden-fresh greens

"Greens, greens, good old greens, I eats 'em in the mornin', I eats 'em in the night, I eats 'em all the time; they make me feel just right." 

— Carl Sandburg, The American Songbag, 1927

In his early days, before winning the Pulitzer Prize, Carl Sandburg began public readings of his poetry by singing folk tunes such as this one. But Sandburg wasn’t the only one to praise greens so highly. I grew up in the South where cooked collard, mustard and turnip greens were a staple of Sunday suppers. My mom used to tell me, “Eat all your greens; they’ll make you as tough as a one-eared alley cat.”

Sandburg and my mom were right. Hailed as “super veggies,” cruciferous greens — so named because their four flower petals resemble a cross — are full of health-supporting vitamins and antioxidants. Today, I still eat my greens, and now I grow them, too. In fact, this month is the perfect time to sow seeds for a variety of fall and winter greens, including kale, mustard and turnip greens, as well as spinach and arugula. Whereas springtime plantings have a tendency to bolt when the weather turns warm, these greens thrive in cooler temperatures, and some even taste sweeter when kissed by a light frost.

The most important thing about growing winter greens is to plant them in beds with moist, fertile soil and good drainage. Accomplish this by working 4 to 6 inches of compost into the garden soil and then raking the surface smooth. Plants will need 3 to 4 weeks to develop healthy root systems before the weather turns cold, so choose fast-maturing varieties when possible. Good choices are: Red Russian for kale; Giant Red and Mizuna for mustard greens; Winter Bloomsdale for spinach; and Rocket for arugula. All Top and Shogoin turnip varieties are particularly suitable for greens because they focus energy on producing leaves rather than large bulbs.

A good way to give seeds a head start is to pre-sprout them before planting. Do this by placing seeds of one variety in the middle of a damp paper towel, fold both ends of the towel over the seed section, and then pat so the moist surface makes contact with the seeds. Fold again and place the towel inside an unsealed plastic bag, making sure to label with the type of seed contained within. Store in a place where the temperature is between 70 and 75 degrees F.

When the sprouts have germinated and grown about ¼ inch, plant them in the garden where they will receive ample sunlight, although greens will tolerate a bit of shade. Adding a balanced fertilizer and mycorrhizal fungi to the planting hole will support optimal development. It’s a good idea to give winter greens plenty of room because this increases air circulation and reduces the likelihood of rot and slug attacks. Add mulch to retain moisture and reduce weeds.

Oct. 15 is the average frost date for our area; however, it’s a good idea to be prepared for unseasonable temperatures on the high and low sides. Water the sprouts every day until the rain takes over, and use cover cloth to provide shade if daytime temperatures reach the 80s. Floating row cover will protect young plants from damage caused by early frosts. Greens need about 2 inches of water every week, so supplement with drip irrigation if necessary.

Harvest greens as needed by cutting younger, tender leaves with scissors. The tastiest leaves are 3 to 4 inches long; bigger leaves tend to be bitter. Keep at least 2 inches of the plant intact so it will continue to produce foliage throughout fall and winter.

The ditty Sandburg performed is by no means the only one that has waxed poetic about greens. Another folksy tune goes, “He didn’t care for honey or sugar or cream; but his heart was set on something, on good ole turnip greens.” If your heart, too, is set on greens, grow your own in the garden this fall and winter, and then be sure to sing about it.

Rhonda Nowak is a Jackson County Master Gardener and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.