Garden Variety: Tips for growing various leafy greens in Midwest
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Leafy greens for salads, stir fries, sautés and other favorite dishes are easy to grow in gardens and containers in the Midwest. Most varieties perform best in the spring or fall and can be planted now through May depending on the crop.
Lettuce is likely the first thing that comes to mind with mention of leafy greens, but there are many options of greens with more flavor and nutritional value than traditional lettuces. Consider trying mesclun, kale, spinach, arugula, chard, mustard, collards, Asian cabbages/greens and others.
For any leafy greens, if planting in the ground or raised beds, prepare soil by mixing in compost or organic matter to improve drainage. If planting in containers, use high-quality soilless potting mix. Most leafy greens are shallow-rooted, so shallow containers (3-4 inches deep) are generally adequate.
Lettuce, mesclun, kale, spinach, and arugula are easy to grow from seed. They can also sometimes be found as transplants (small plants ready to transplant into your garden) at garden centers in early spring. Seed is the least expensive route. Transplants are good for small-quantity plantings and to get a jumpstart on plant growth.
Chard, mustard, collards, and Asian cabbages/greens are easiest to grow by transplanting small plants into the garden. They are common in garden centers in early spring.
For most greens, watering and weeding are the only maintenance needed.
Leafy greens are harvestable as soon as leaves have reached the desired size. With some species, flavor and texture varies with age of the leaf. For example, baby spinach and chard leaves are more tender and milder than larger, more mature leaves. Use scissors or shears to clip individual leaves from the plants, which will allow plants to produce more leaves. Flavor may also change from first to second cuttings of some species.
Lettuce, mesclun, spinach, arugula and some Asian greens will die out or produce flowers (called bolting) when temperatures are consistently above 80 degrees. Kale and mustard greens can survive the summer but may develop a bitter flavor — sometimes you can let them go over the summer and start harvesting again when cool temperatures return. Chard and collards can be harvested all season long.
For more information about specific leafy greens, refer to the information below or other reputable sources. Remember with gardening resources to always look for geographically specific recommendations.
The best bet for lettuces in Kansas are leaf types. There are a few different varieties with ranges in color and leaf shape. All are short-lived and produce tender leaves. Romaine and butterhead lettuces have thicker, more flavorful leaves, but also require a longer growing season and are a little harder to grow. Sometimes they perform better in the fall than in the spring. Iceberg and similar head lettuces do not perform well in Kansas and are not recommended.
Mesclun is a French word for mixture and refers to a mix or blend of different types of salad greens. It may contain chervil, arugula, leaf lettuce, endive, spinach, chard, mustard and others. You can create your own mesclun by mixing seeds together before planting or purchase them already mixed.
There are several types and varieties of each. Plant plain or curly-leaved kale to harvest tender leaves for salads and plant lacinato or dinosaur kale to chop for stir fries and soups. Kale prefers cool temperatures and will taste best in spring and fall.
Several spinach varieties perform well in Kansas. Look for ones with good heat tolerance for a spring crop.
You may see Malabar spinach available as a transplant also. This is not a true spinach but has similar leaves and flavor to spinach. It is a heat-loving vine that will survive until the first frost. Harvest new tender leaves throughout the season and give the plant a trellis or post for support.
Arugula has a spicy flavor and is typically preferred mixed with other greens.
Swiss chard is planted for its ornamental value as well as for a food crop. Harvest throughout the season and keep plants well-watered in the summer heat.
Mustard and collards
Mustard and collard greens can also be harvested throughout the season. Sometimes insects feed on leaves in summer and make them less desirable. Use row cover to protect plants if insects become a problem.
Mizuna, tatsoi, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, and others are often lumped together as Asian greens. Most prefer cool temperatures like lettuce and spinach so should be planted or transplanted into the garden soon.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.