Don't Forget the Greens

When living in the Arctic or Sub-arctic regions of the world, freshly-picked greens are virtually unheard of in grocery stores. They are usually 4 to 7 days old. That in itself is a great reason to grow a garden. When you grow a garden, greens should be an important part of that garden. The greens group discussed here includes such vegetables as Spinach, Swiss Chard, Kale, Collards, Mustard, and Beets and Turnips when grown for their greens.

There are numerous reasons why greens should be included in any arctic garden. They are the easiest of all vegetables to grow - mustard is so prolific it is almost a weed. They all come up quickly in cold soils and are ready for harvest in a few short weeks. After a long arctic winter they are also the earliest, and can be planted as soon as the ground thaws and can be worked in the spring. This group of vegetables can withstand some frost so they can be planted before the danger of frost is past and will be among the first crops harvested. They are also inexpensive to grow because they are easily grown directly in the garden from seed. This group is also easy to grow as transplants when that extra early crop is desired.

Of all the garden vegetables, greens are one of the most neglected because many gardeners forget to plant them. This is a mistake because they are extremely nutritious. They are high in vitamins A and C and high in minerals such as calcium and iron. Freshly picked greens from your garden are best because they have a higher nutritional value than store-bought varieties. Store-bought vegetables are not as good for you because the longer a vegetable is stored before it is eaten, the greater its vitamin loss.

In many ways greens are grown like salad crops. In fact some greens, such as spinach, are grown in many gardens primarily for salad greens. These easy to grow varieties all have fairly good-sized seeds, but should be planted shallow, not more than 1/4 inch deep, to take advantage of the warmer surface soil. Remember that shallow planting requires more watering to keep the seed moist until the seedlings are up. Because greens are grown for their foliage, they require a little more nitrogen than most garden vegetables. An application of 2 to 3 pounds of a 20-10-10 plant food per 100 square feet should be adequate, but if the plants still have a pale color, apply a second application.

Because greens have an attractive and often colorful foliage, they are of ornamental value. When space is very limited, consider mixing greens with flowers for an attractive and functional bed or border, instead of planting them in rows in the garden.

Recommended varieties: Boltardy, Cylindra, Ruby Queen

Beets are usually grown for their enlarged dark red tap root. Since the seed is really a fruit made up of several seeds they produce many young seedlings that will need thinning. The reddish green leafy tops of the excess plants are excellent cooked as greens and are high in iron. Beets are easy to grow, but should be grown quickly with plenty of moisture and fertilizer. Before planting, soak the seeds in warm water for 24 hours. Since beets are cold hardy the seeds may be planted 2 to 3 weeks before the frost-free date as the seedlings will tolerate a light frost. In the colder regions of Alaska the tap root may not develop but the leaves will make excellent greens.

Recommended variety: Vates

A member of the cabbage family that does not head and is a close relative of kale. Unlike kale, collards like hot weather. They grow fairly well in most of Alaska, but in very cold areas substitute kale. Collards is a southern dish and the edible portion is the rosette of leaves that resemble cabbage leaves. A light frost will improve the flavor of collards.

Recommended variety: Red Russian

A member of the cabbage family, kale is very cold hardy. The young thinnings are very good to eat and the fall frosts improve the flavor of mature leaves. Kale is rich in vitamin A, thiamine and ascorbic acid. Kale is usually eaten cooked. Creamed new potatoes and kale is a favorite dish in many parts of the country.

Recommended variety: Tendergreen, Southern Giant Curled

An extremely easy, cold tolerant, fast growing, spinach-like annual herb that is commonly grown for its spicy, young, tender leaves, used in salads and as a cooked vegetable. Mustard is the first vegetable to be harvested in a spring garden. The mature plant may become weedy and should be pulled before it goes to seed. Mustard should be planted several times for a continuous crop. It will withstand frost well. Try adding the spicy leaves to a tasty Italian omelet, or lightly saute the leaves in butter or bacon drippings.

Recommended varieties: Bloomsdale, Renegade, Space, Tyee

Spinach is the touchiest of all greens in Alaska because it readily goes to seed under our long days. Planting in early May and late July with the recommended varieties will produce a satisfactory crop that will hold several days, usually 4 to 7, upon reaching maturity before it goes to seed. Plant as soon as the ground can be readied in spring as the seedlings will tolerate a light frost. Make multiple plantings for a longer spring and fall season. For best results keep the plants growing fast with plenty of water and fertilizer. When harvesting, cut the entire plant and use in your favorite dishes such as a salad, spinach pie, creamed spinach, spinach soup, or a cheesy spinach souffle. Spinach is one of the most popular and versatile greens.

Swiss Chard 
Recommended varieties: Fordhook Giant, Rhubarb, Ruby Red

Swiss Chard is one of the best and most popular greens in Alaska. It is a leaf beet that does not produce a tap root and is grown strictly for its greens. Rhubarb Chard, a ruby leaved variety, is very ornamental as well as a source of excellent greens. Chard is much easier to grow than spinach and in most cases can be substituted in cooked dishes. The plants are very leafy, they need to be thinned to 6 inches apart. Harvesting may begin as soon as the outer leaves are six inches long and the same plants will continue to produce greens all season. Chard should be used immediately after picking because the leaves wilt quickly. Some people remove the white stalks of Fordhook Giant from the leaves and serve them like asparagus. Also try rolling the leaves with a ground meat filling and bake with your favorite mushroom or tomato sauce.

Recommended varieties: Golden Globe, Purple Top White Globe, White Egg

Turnips are like beets, usually grown for the enlarged tap root, and like beets the tops make excellent greens. Unlike the other greens turnips have large hairy leaves which are served cooked. Turnips are also a cool season crop and may be planted as soon as the ground can be worked. Turnips are an excellent arctic crop used for greens in summer and the roots stored for the winter. In many parts of Alaska the fall planting must be made before July 1 to mature before winter. Turnips are the only greens crop bothered by insects in Alaska and must be protected against root maggots. Try a stir fry with turnip greens in sesame oil, for a crisp vegetable in oriental dishes or in a combination meat dish.

The trick to serving good nutritious greens is to cook them quickly and in as little water as possible, preferably in a steamer. Cook leafy greens about 1 to 3 minutes, just until they wilt. Greens will make your meals exciting and nutritious.