Leafy greens are an essential part of a healthy diet, often called by nutritionists the number one food to eat for a healthier lifestyle. They deliver plenty of vitamins, minerals, fiber and plant-based substances, such as folic acid, which can help protect against heart disease, diabetes and perhaps even cancer. Dietary experts recommend adding leafy greens to your diet. This can include adding spinach, kale and other top greens to soups, stews, lasagnas and salads and as pizza toppings. Parents even serve baked kale chips to their kids in place of unhealthy potato chips.
Since prices for organic greens can be quite high in supermarkets (one bag of salad greens costs around $3), it's a smart choice to grow leafy greens in your garden, getting months' worth of greens from one $3 leafy green seedlings that grows and proliferates during the fall season.
Charlie Nardozzi, Edible Landscaping columnist for the National Gardening Association (Gardens.org), says, "Some of my favorite easy-to-grow fall crops are greens. Fall greens, such as lettuce, mesclun mix, kale, mustard, arugula, mache and spinach love the cooler temperatures and, depending on where you live, will produce this fall, throughout the winter, and even into the spring."
Top greens include the following, according to the experts at WebMD:
--Kale -- Often called the top nutrition powerhouse in leafy greens, this is an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K, plus folate, heart-healthy potassium and bone-strengthening calcium. In fall, kale leaves turn a dark burgundy color, adding visual flair to salads, soups, casseroles and other dishes.
"For diversity of leaf shape, color (from deep green to blue), size and crunch, choose several kale varieties," says Cathy Wilkinson Barash for the National Garden Bureau.
--Collard greens -- Best known as a staple in southern cooking, collard greens are popular all over the country, with similar nutritional benefits as kale but with a chewier texture and cabbage-like taste. Their wide leaves can be used as a wrapper for healthy sandwiches, without the need for bread.
--Turnip greens -- Fall is a peak time for planting root vegetables, and turnips deliver double the payoff, since their leaves are loaded with vitamins A, C and K, along with calcium.
--Swiss chard -- This leafy green features red stalks and stems, offering a beet-like taste and soft texture for eating raw or cooked. This green is a good source of vitamins A and C.
Spinach -- One of the most versatile leafy greens, spinach is low in calories and offers high levels of vitamins A and C, as well as folate. Cooked spinach offers more nutritional value than raw.
--Mustard greens -- Also a leafy green known to southern culinary traditions, mustard greens' scalloped edges add visual flair to salads, have a peppery taste and provide vitamins and fiber while being low in calories.
--Red and Green Leaf and Romaine Lettuce -- These types of easy-to-grow lettuces are high in vitamin A and offer folate, as well. Leaf lettuces have a softer texture, while romaine lettuces are crispier. Darker lettuces offer more nutritional value than lighter-colored lettuces, so let that be your guide when shopping for your garden's healthy lettuce plantings. Look for lettuces marked "cold-hardy," says Nardozzi, to help your lettuce crop thrive. Butter lettuces withstand the cold weather well, and baby lettuces are a good choice because they are quick to mature.
--Mesclun greens -- "(They) are ready to harvest in less than one month and can be planted multiple times in fall as a succession crop," says Nardozzi.
--Wild Greens -- Arugula and mache are among the most cold-tolerant of the greens. Arugula can withstand fall's occasional freezing and thawing and still grow, and mache can survive cold weather snaps as well. Mache leaves have a soft and buttery texture and mild flavor. Arugula has deeply cut green leaves and a milder flavor in fall than its spicier taste in hot weather.
--Broccoli raab -- This is a sprouting broccoli and is also known by such names as raab, rapa, rapini and spring broccoli, says Barash.
Nardozzi also recommends looking at exotic Asian greens: "Asian greens, such as mizuna, add unusual textures, shapes and spicy flavors to salads." Barash agrees: "Oriental greens round out the medley. From mizuna to tatsoi, pac choi, bok choy and komatsuna and their cultivars, there is an assortment of new, vitamin-filled greens to try." Barash also adds endive and radicchio to your garden list, if you like a more bitter taste mixed into your salads or within your casseroles and stews.
Fall planting of leafy greens leads to quick results. For most, leaves can be picked when they are only a few inches long, and your garden center will recommend varieties and brands that thrive in your region. Fall weather also helps greens along, with more rain, moderate temperatures, fewer garden pests and fewer weeds stealing their soil nutrition.
Your greens can be planted in your ground or raised garden beds or arranged in container gardens for easier access if you have mobility challenges or just as a decorative accent to your outdoor space, with those colorful leaves coordinating with the richly shaded fall foliage on your property.
Garden professional David Brill of The Farm at Green Village suggests staggering your leafy green plantings, putting second and third plants into your garden a week or two later, so that as you harvest your leafy greens, you always have fresh, newer plants growing to keep delivering those nutritional powerhouse plants for all of your recipes and salads.