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Cool Greens for the Connoisseur Gardener

lacinato kale

People love tomatoes and corn, but personally I am happy when summer is over and I can grow my favorite fall vegetable greens. They are far superior to store bought greens. And if I am willing to replant if it gets too hot, and cover these when it freezes, I can often keep them growing through the winter.

The challenge is there are so many delicious choices to grow that it’s hard to find room in the garden.

Most people are familiar with the traditional collard and turnip greens and vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, and kale. These crops flourish in our cool falls and survive most winter weather without protection. You can start them by seed in August, or buy transplants and put them in the garden in September.

Lettuce mix

Lettuce mix / Jeana Myers

The incredible array of lettuces you can now find in seed catalogs or local nurseries will make your head spin; red or dark purple curly leaf, oak leaf, deer tongue, romaine, and butter crunch, to just name a few.

These greens need a little more attention to regular watering and protection from hot fall days. I stretch a row cover (spun polyester) over the top to provide shade if it’s too sunny when transplanting. With too much heat, the lettuces may bolt (stem lengthens and the plant produces a flower stalk) which means they become bitter and are no longer producing green leaves to eat. If there is time for the plants to get established before cold weather sets in, you can replant and hope for better conditions. Lettuces have to be covered in hard freezes so bring out the row cover again.

Arugula

Arugula / Jeana Myers

There are a number of other less common fall greens to plant in your garden. Arugula is not every person’s favorite, but if you love it (who wouldn’t tossed with walnuts, dried cherries, feta cheese, onions and vinaigrette) it is an absolute workhorse in the garden. You can practically scatter seeds with your eyes closed.

Lacinato kale is a specimen plant with blue-green dimpled foliage that gives it the common name of dinosaur kale. It has been grown in Italy for hundreds of years and is also known as Tuscan kale, being favored in soups and stews. It’s vigorous and lasts beautifully through the winter.

Kohlrabi

Kohlrabi / Jeana Myers

Red Giant mustard and purple kohlrabi are two that I find hard to harvest because they are so attractive. The Red Giant is best eaten when leaves are younger. It gets big quickly so be ready for timely trimming. Last year I did a whole photo shoot of kohlrabi in its full purple glory. The expanded stem looks like a turnip and can be eaten raw or cooked with the greens. Rainbow Swiss chard is not a flavor favorite of mine but it always gets invited just because it’s so colorful.

Mizuna kale

Mizuna kale / Jeana Myers

Red Russian kale is another strikingly attractive vegetable with blue green leaves borne on red stems and leaf veins standing out in a pinkish red hue. Picked young, these leaves are so tender they can be eaten raw in salads.

Mizuna kale, both purple and green, has very feathery leaves and serves to give a basic lettuce salad more texture, lift and interest.

There are many varieties of Chinese cabbage to consider, with two main groups being the Napa and bok choy. While they can be eaten raw when harvested young, most people use these in stir-fry or for making kim chi, a fermented dish.

Salad burnette

Salad burnette / Jeana Myers

Salad burnet and sorrel are two under-utilized and delicious perennial plants. Burnet forms a mound of feathery leaves that emanate from the center. The leaves were used medicinally as an astringent, but they are quite delicious when picked young and chopped up in salads. I find this plant to struggle in our heat, so it may not act as perennial and need replanting. It is a real beauty and does well in a container. Thomas Jefferson loved Salad Burnet and planted it as fodder for livestock.

French sorrel is not the weed we have growing all over North Carolina. It is tender and lemony flavored when young and goes well in a salad mix, and when more mature makes one of the best soups I have ever eaten.

Don’t forget cilantro and parsley love cool weather, too. Cilantro pesto is a great way to preserve this herb.

Check your local nurseries for seeds and transplants of these super greens, or order seeds from a catalog and start your own. Remember to keep the plants cool as they are getting established, water regularly, and if they bolt, plant again.

Featured image – Lacinato kale / Jeana Myers

Jeana Myers, PhD, is the Horticulture Agent for Wake County. For gardening questions, contact the Extension Master Gardeners of Wake County at 919-250-1084 or email [email protected]