The Practical Gardener

My mother was raised on a large farm in northeastern Iowa. Until she left, to attend secretarial school in Des Moines, my mother, her mother, and her three sisters spent much of each summer feeding as many as two dozen farm hands who spent long hour in the fields. They fed this army the veggies and fruits from the garden, and meat fresh or cured from the smokehouse. Imagining the tremendous daily effort those five women went through harvesting, processing, cooking and serving three meals a day to a bunch of farm hands, I would say my mother escaped to secretarial school. It’s little wonder that she loved cooking canned vegetables from the grocery store. Though she never said it, I believe she saw commercially canned food as a blessing sent from heaven.

In spite of the fact that my dad grew mostly radishes, strawberries and lettuce (and also tended some killer fruit trees), we still ate mostly commercially canned vegetables from the mid-’50s until commercially frozen veggies finally took over. I know well the hard, tinny taste of canned broccoli, green beans and spinach, served boiled to a state beyond recognition. I understand why my mother parted ways with any sort of adulthood alliance with garden fresh veggies. It leaves me a bit bummed, though, that I didn’t have the opportunity as a child to realize what fresh greens could really taste like.

When I first became acquainted with the taste of garden-fresh “hardy greens” (which include kale, turnip tops, mustard, collards and the oriental members of the motley Brassica clan), eaten raw, I experienced an epiphany. The sometimes sharp, sometimes tangy, sometimes mild, sometimes crunchy … but always invigorating flavor of hardy greens, is what I love most about veggie gardens.

Now is the time to start thinking about getting seeds together and making a fall planting of these crops. While planting shouldn’t generally happen until early August for many of these quick-growing, vitamin-packed veggies, you may find that some garden centers still have cool-weather-loving hardy greens in stock for transplanting. It’s certainly worthwhile to make use of these to get a head start.

The oriental Brassicas are a fairly diverse lot. Various varieties of bok choy have become popular over the last 20 years. All of them have crunchy stalks that open into succulent leaves, but there is a large range in flavor from spicy to mild. There are lots of sizes in these oriental greens; the larger ones take longer to grow, and conversely, the smallest ones generally take the least amount of time to mature. But by and large, they all grow darned fast, as compared to broccoli or, especially, Brussels sprouts. By growing quickly, they seem less susceptible to insect damage.

There is a wide variety of mustard greens available, as well. All of them are a bit coarser in taste, in comparison to the bok choys, but they all steam up well and add character to layered casseroles and lasagnas. From what I’m told by my Southern neighbors, they also do wonders when cooked with bacon fat. Pak Choi is a mustard that will take planting in all seasons. Rape is a mustard green that is darn tender and is ready to eat in three weeks. Red Giant is a big, burley variety that looks great in the garden and tastes great too. Mizuna is a feathery, quick-maturing mustard with a delicate flavor. Tendergreen is a thick-leaved mustard that takes longer to mature, but offers excellent flavor.

While the mustards are all a bit coarser in texture than some of the other oriental Brassicas, people’s reactions to the m vary. Once I got used to the slightly hairy texture of raw mustard leaves on my tongue, I was able to appreciate the difference in flavor. The evolution of my reaction is comparable learning to appreciate raw oysters: After learning to accept their slimy texture as they slide down your throat, their great flavor comes to the fore.

There are some obscure oriental greens that do well in the fall, whose names I am unsure of. I spent several years growing an edible garland with a spicy leaf that added great flavor when mixed with other veggies. Late last summer, I grew some greens that came from Reems Creek nursery in the early months of fall; the plants blasted off in a corner of my greenhouse to produce a couple months’ worth of leaves with the distinctive taste of chop suey. I don’t know the name of the plant, but its presence in my garden provided a welcome alternative flavor for sandwiches, stir fries and garden grazing, until the hard frost took it out.

Another terrific attribute of oriental greens is their ability (like all hardy greens) to perform extremely well in cold weather if given a little bit of help from floating row cover or other low-budget season-extension contraption. My first late-summer-planted collards were cooked up as Hoppin’ John on New Year’s day, after they survived the cold under a double layer of floating row cover and plastic.

But the big joy of hardy greens is the walloping punch of nutritional goodness that you can feel as you munch on a leaf. No tomato or summer squash produces the same resounding experience that all but proclaims, “Eating this is good for you.” That alone is reason enough for you to be looking at your options for starting some hardy greens for your fall garden.

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