Leafy greens you can grow in your garden

Nick Moyle and Rich Hood

A healthy patch of leafy greens in your garden is wonderful both to look at and for your plate, but which ones will successfully grow? 

All vegetable gardeners have plants they struggle to grow, often for seemingly no reason at all. With us, it’s common brassicas such as cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli. Although we have had some successes with each of them we tend to find them more trouble than they’re worth.

Our main problem is the competition we’re up against when it comes to eating the goods. Pigeons are the biggest pest, greedily tucking into whatever leaves they can lay their beaks on throughout the year. But we also suffer from cabbage white butterflies and cabbage root fly, among others. We’re against using chemical warfare on our gardens, and constructing protective cages often seems like too much bother for such humble veg. And even under the safety of netting those brassicas often grow slowly and unreliably.

In order to get a regular supply of leafy green goodness there are other brassicas we grow instead. Although they’re prone to the same problems, they seem to battle their way through with a higher success rate than the others. There are also a few members of the beet family that are excellent at providing lots of lush green foliage, packed with healthy vitamins, and can quickly fill any gaps in the garden.

If you want to boost your grow-your-own-greens quota and, like us, are looking for the easiest plants to try then here are our top five suggestions…

 

Kale

kale

This leafy green brassica (or, in some instances, purple) is a bit of a super veg, stuffed with healthy vitamins. Varieties of curly kale and the trendier Cavalo Nero are easy to grow from seed and relatively pest free—birds will peck when given the chance but once established they’re pretty good at surviving all but the most destructive beak-led attacks.

Kale can be sown in rows from March to June, or in order to keep them away from those birds you can sow them in modules and hide them safely indoors until established with six true leaves. A covering of netting or fleece while young will be enough thwart off birds, tentatively removing it as they fill out.

From October you will be ready to harvest by picking the younger leaves at the top, which should keep you going until Christmas. In the new year, remove the crown at the top and you should also be rewarded with tasty side shoots for another couple of months.

 

Purple sprouting broccoli

One of our favourite brassicas in the kitchen, and one of the hardiest in the garden—purple sprouting broccoli will survive plunging winter temperatures and be one of the few plants you can pick during the pre-spring “hungry gap”.

Seeds are best sown in modules or trays indoors from April to July, planting out when they’ve reached around 12cm high and have a rigidity to their stems. Place them between 40cm and 50cm apart in rows and water during any long, dry spells. Like most brassicas they’ll appreciate a nitrogen feed when they get going and the same bird-protection rules apply as for kale. 

Carefully cut the spears before the flowers fully emerge and that will encourage more side-shoots to grow over the next month or so.

 

Chard

This handsome vegetable, also known as leaf beet, is often grown for its good looks as much as being a great food. It’s a member of the beet family, but is equally as desirable for birds as brassicas, so give it as much protection as you can, particularly when young. 

Sow in rows in a sunny spot or, if you really want to show off its good looks, try growing in a container.

Cut leaves as and when you need them to prolong the growing season, using younger leaves in salads and older ones to cook with. 

There are lots of colourful chards you could grow, from the classic green leaf and purple-veined varieties that remind you of its beetroot cousins, to glorious reds, yellows and oranges. Its earthy flavours aren’t to everyone’s liking (try making a chard gratin before totally giving up on the taste), but at least the less convinced will have an attractive plant to look at. 

 

Perpetual spinach

perpetual spinach

Perpetual spinach may look and taste like a large-leaved version of its namesake, but it’s actually a relative of chard. And it’s a wonder veg in the garden. You can sow it outside in all but the coldest winter months or grow it in the warmth all year round. It’s quick to germinate and grow and is used as a cut-and-come-again vegetable—regularly harvest its leaves and it will keep on churning them out for up to nine months. 

We sow ours in spring and let them get on with it—like chard we pluck the first young leaves for salads, then use to the larger leaves to cook with. It needs very little attention, other than watering when it gets very dry, and there’s always enough for the wildlife to enjoy too: you may find big holes in outer leaves, but simply remove them and pick the more complete leaves beneath. Minimum effort for maximum rewards. Now that’s our kind of vegetable.

 

Broccoli raab

Our final suggestion is a less well-known vegetable that looks a little like sprouting broccoli and can be used in a similar way, but is actually a relative of the turnip. Its main advantage to gardeners is the speed at which it grows, often going from sowing to harvest in under eight weeks, making it great for quickly filling gaps. This growing speed also means it’s quick to bolt in hot weather, so for best results sow in early spring (under fleece if its still cold) or after mid-summer.

Harvest as you would purple sprouting—before the flower heads bloom—and if you’re lucky you’ll get a second flush from the shoots lower down the stem (providing you don’t snip them off). They cook quickly and have a slightly bitter, mustardy flavour which makes a great side dish for spicy food.


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