Summer is almost over in the Southwest and it’s time for the cool season vegetable garden – full of greens! Good news is that you don’t need a giant space – just a few big pots on the patio will do. Here are some tips to get you started.
Cool Season is Time for Greens
Garden greens in the lower elevations of the Southwest need the cooler soils of autumn to grow their best. Seeds need cool soil to germinate. Then the plants need the short days of fall, winter, and early spring to stay vegetative―producing leaves not flowers. Once the weather heats up, these greens will become bitter, begin to flower, set seed, and die.
Leafy greens need a rich, well-drained soil, with a pH of 6.5 to 7.5.
Add ample compost or aged manure to the garden soil before planting for healthy growth.
Containers full of potting soil are just fine.
Plants will need full sun for six hours a day.
Keep the soil evenly moist for best flavor.
Greens don’t have to be lettuce. In fact, after growing many of these you might never grow lettuce again.
European spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is just fine to plant in Fall. Don’t grow the New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonioides) – it’s a warm season green.
Orach (Atriplex hortensis): Also called wild spinach, I prefer it over the European spinach listed above. It has a sweeter flavor and no gritty feel.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa): Eaten raw or cooked, adds a tangy lemony flavor to food.
Mizuna (Brassica rapa var. japonica): with a mild mustard flavor this is good in salads or cooked.
Mustard (Brassica juncea): Southwest’s own ‘Mostaza Roja’ is mild enough for salads or used as a cooked green. Avoid any variety with “giant” in their name, they do not do well with our low humidity.
Tatsoi (Brassica rapa var. narinosa) with a mild mustard flavor, it is good in salads or cooked.
Mache (Valerianella locusta): also called corn salad or or lambs lettuce, once you grow this you will never eat lettuce again. It simply melts in your mouth.
Mesclun Mix: mixed seed that generally includes lettuce, orach, mache, and some of the mustards. Cut to harvest, generally within 3 weeks of sowing.
Microgreens: mixed seed that you cut and consume when they are still “micro” a bare 3 to 4 inches tall.
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa): There are four types of lettuce: crisphead, butterhead, romaine, and looseleaf. Looseleaf and butterhead are most successful in our climate. ‘Black-Seeded Simpson’ and ‘Simpson Elite’ are two good green-leaf varieties. ‘Red Sails’ and ‘Lolla Rosa’ are easy-to-grow red-leaf varieties. Try ‘Buttercrunch’ if you want a heading lettuce.
Harvest of Greens
Greens are most easily harvested using scissors to snip off leaves ½ to 1 inch above the soil line, or at the stem for taller greens. Usually plants will grow additional leaves. If you can, harvest in the morning when the water content of the leaves is highest. Invest in a good salad spinner to wash your homegrown greens.
Don’t be shy about adding some pansies or calendula to your garden planters. Your garden will look pretty, plus these have edible flowers, a topic we’ll have to discuss later.
More about growing cool season vegetables in my book Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there we will get a few pennies. Also, the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute may get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.
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