Saturday, November 04, 2006

Fall Greens

Young Kale and Mustard plants sown in the fall.
Many edibles practically care for themselves during fall and winter. Cilantro, lettuce, fennel, mustard, chard, and kale, among others,  love the weather ahead. Cool moist temperatures, and lots of rain bring us sweet delicate greens for our fall and winter soups and salads. Now is the time to get these delectables growing, if you can just find the space.

Cool season greens are lovely to look at, especially as fall grows old and winter comes to visit with its cold, grey, and stormy days. Lettuce can look quite perky when the rest of the garden is bedraggled by rain. It is available in all shades of green from very pale to very deep. There are varieties with speckles, and splashes of purple or red, and other varieties that boast deep red or purple leaves. All these colors of lettuce come in a variety of leaf forms from the large simple leaves of romaine to frilly butter crunch and lacy oak leaves. No room in the garden? A few pots or containers growing lettuce will look attractive on a patio or porch!

If you have a large pot (or an empty spot in the garden or flower bed) Red Giant Mustard would make a dramatic back drop for the smaller and more delicate lettuce plants. Or if you like the red and purple lettuce types, Giant Southern Curled Mustard (also called Green Wave) with its pale green leaves would make a fitting back ground for your fall container garden. Swiss chard is another interesting plant that will eventually grow quite tall, and the newer hybrids come in a multitude of stem and leaf vein colors.

Fall sown mixed mustards growing like crazy with the longer days of spring.
 There are also many lovely types of kale, in a variety of colors and leaf shapes. While they start out small and delicate - many grow up to make large interesting plants. Look for Red Russian Kale, Red Bore, or Dinosaur Kale. The young leaves of all these plants make good additions to salads, the older leaves are great for soup, and the plants make a dramatic statement in a pot or out in the garden.

Cilantro and fennel both love cool wet weather and they will thrive in the garden or in containers on a bright porch or patio. They add flavor to winter salads and soups, as well as a delightful fragrance to the air. Their lacy leaves also add textual interest to the garden or groups of container plants.

Fragrant and tender Fennel!

There are several steps to creating an attractive fall container garden, not the least of which is collecting your containers. Folks with ample budgets can find many new decorative containers at nurseries and garden centers, as well as original pieces from galleries and antique stores. The rest of us can be content with second hand and dollar store finds or recycled items from around the house.

Empty coffee, juice, and other large cans (at least 3 inches in diameter), make great containers for growing greens. You can also cut the tops off of empty plastic containers (such as milk and juice jugs, soda and water bottles, soap and bleach containers) and use them as containers. Make sure to thoroughly wash any residues from containers that contained household supplies. You can use a hammer and nail or a can opener to make drainage holes on the bottom of cans, or a sharp knife or awl for plastic containers. (Be careful!) Next add a few rocks to improve drainage and keep your container from getting top heavy as your plants grow. Save your largest containers for giant mustards, Swiss chard, kale, or cabbage. Cabbage doesn’t get as tall as the rest, but it needs lots of room for its roots. (And it is available in a number of attractive colors and forms.)

Next you will need to supply your snazzy new containers with some potting soil. Your local nursery can make recommendations for you, or you can make your own. If you don’t have finished compost or access to leaf mould, a simple fall potting blend can be made, starting with dry leaves. You want crisp leaves that crumble into small bits when scrunched or rubbed between your hands. Old corn or squash leaves and leaves that have fallen from your trees are all possibilities. If they aren’t crisp enough yet, spread them out on a tarp or old sheet and leave them in a sunny spot. Turn or stir them once a day until they crackle and crumble when you crush them. (If rain threatens you can move them into the shed or garage until we get a sunny day.) Two parts crumbled leaves, two parts sand, and one part garden soil is a good starting recipe. If you mix up at least a gallon’s worth, you can add a handful each of used coffee grounds (for nitrogen) and wood or paper ashes (for minerals) and you are ready to get growing.

If seeds are not your thing, check out the plant starts available at nurseries and hardware stores. Many types of lettuce, kale, cabbage, and other fall greens are available right now. Simply plant them in your containers, keep them moist (but not soggy) and cool until the young plants start to grow. Once you see some new growth forming, gradually move them to the sunniest spot on your porch or patio and watch them thrive.

Fall greens are easy to start from seed. It's not too late unless your ground may freeze solid,or if you will get a heavy blanket of snow. You can plant a few seeds directly into the potting soil, according to the directions on the packets. Seeds and young seedlings will need to be kept evenly moist until they are established, and then you can enjoy their colors and fragrance, both on the patio and in the kitchen through the blustery months ahead.

Seeds are available at many hardware, health food, and grocery stores. If you don’t find what you are hoping for, check out Territorial Seed: (800) 626-0866. They have a nice selection of lettuce, spinach, chard, mustard, and cabbage varieties, and they have fennel, cilantro (listed under coriander), as well as a mixed packet of colorful kales that I would love to try.

If you are searching for seeds on a budget, don’t forget to check with friends, relatives, and neighbors who garden. Many people save their own seed, and others are unable to use all they purchase. Gardeners are usually happy to share when they have more than they need. And you might just make their day by asking. Most gardeners love to show off their gardens and share their tips to success.

Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, from my column "Digging the Dirt," published in The Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, Nov. 10, 2006. Posted here with permission.

Edited and photos added, 11.13.2016.  Copyright Harvest McCampbell.  Please feel free to share via the buttons below.  All other rights reserved.