“Eat your greens!” demanded my mum when I was a boy and, you know what, she was right! Leafy greens are loaded with goodness and growing them yourself is a surefire way to ensure there’s always some to hand.
Read on or watch our video to discover five of the very best health-boosting leafy greens to grow.
1. Swiss Chard
First up is my personal favourite: Swiss chard! It’s a really hard-working vegetable, giving up repeated cuts of leaves throughout the growing season. Plants do tend to bolt (run to seed) in hot weather, and as a delayed reaction to a cold snap soon after planting. While bolting won’t make the leaves inedible, it does mean there’s less to pick. For this reason, plant chard after your last frost, keep plants well-watered in hot weather, and set up some shade in extreme heat.
If they do bolt, cut back the flower stalks and harvest what you can. It’s worth having seedlings at the ready to transplant into a new patch of ground elsewhere. These should put on plenty of growth, sit out the winter, then continue growing next spring.
Beetroot is very closely related to chard, which means their leaves make good eating too. They taste just like spinach and are chock-full of goodness – they even contain a compound shown to boost the production of serotonin, the body’s natural mood lifter. Fry them, steam them, or whizz them up in a smoothie loaded with other greens.
Spinach really is a super leafy green: quick-growing, versatile, and surprisingly hardy. Late summer is the perfect time to make sowings that will give a few leaves to pick come autumn, then more leaves the moment things warm up again next spring.
Sow seeds direct in rows about 8in (20cm) apart, thinning in stages to leave plants a similar distance apart. Help this cool-season crop germinate in warm weather by watering into the seed drill before sowing to ensure a cool, damp environment around the seeds. Or start seeds somewhere cool and shady before planting out into their final positions.
Protect spinach from the coldest winter weather or, if winters are severe in your neck of the woods, sow into plug trays indoors in late summer before planting out once it’s warmed up a bit in spring. Pick individual leaves regularly to delay bolting and keep plants cropping for longer.
All hail the kale! This nutrient-dense leafy green is the real hero of the winter months, offering its crinkled leaves throughout, pausing only for the very coldest months. Plant them about a foot and a half (45cm) apart both ways.
Kale’s an ideal crop to plant after earlier crops have been lifted. To help them along, top up the soil with a thin layer of compost and cover them with insect mesh until cabbage white butterflies clear off later in autumn.
It has to be said: there’s no more handsome leafy green than kale, and its good looks are more than matched by taste! I love it lightly fried off with a pinch of salt, or even dehydrated to make kale crisps. Pick the leaves individually as soon as plants have reached a reasonable size – say a foot or two (30-60cm) tall. I love the ‘Cavolo Nero’ or ‘Black Tuscan’ style of kale, but there are plenty of other frilled or wavy-leafed kales to try, so don’t be shy to pick and mix.
4. Collards and Spring Greens
Collards, spring greens or indeed any looser-leaved variety of cabbage is a quicker-growing, easier alternative to heading types of cabbage. Just like kale they’re loaded with nutrition.
Collards and spring greens love a moist, fertile soil that’s well-drained. Late summer’s a good time to sow them, ready for planting out a month later. They’ll then grow on and off throughout the winter, before forging ahead in spring to give a harvest of tasty greens from the second half of spring.
You’ll often find ready-to-plant spring cabbages for sale in garden centers – great if you’re after just a few plants to perk up springtime suppers. I’ll be planting mine to follow on from an earlier crop of peas, but first I’ll amend the soil with a top-up of well-rotted compost.
To plant, I’ll simply set plants about 12-18in (30-45cm) apart within the rows, setting the next row a further 18in (45cm distant). There might be a few leaves to pick before winter, but if not, they’ll sit tight – while I sit patiently – til spring.
5. Turnip Greens
The final must-grow leafy green is turnip greens, which are simply the leafy tops of turnip roots. If you’ve never tried them before, let me convince you! They’re super-fast – ready within about a month of sowing, have a mild, almost buttery flavour, and respond really well to sowing in late summer and autumn.
Select a variety bred specifically for its leaves if you can, as it will have the best taste. Plants bolt in the heat, so delay sowing until the soil has cooled down a little. Sow direct into rows or into plug trays for planting out as soon as earlier crops are cleared. Sow or thin plants to around 6in (15cm) apart in both directions.
They’ll need consistent moisture in dry conditions to keep them coming along. When they’re ready, pick the leaves sparingly as required so plants keep growing to produce more fresh, tender leaves. The leaves are at their best after a few cold nights, which helps to develop a sweeter taste.
There are plenty of other leafy greens, of course, so if I haven’t mentioned your favourite, tell us all about it in the comments below.