Cutting Greens: the Heart of the Garden

When I started thinking seriously about planning this garden around the main objective of maximizing food security, I knew right away that I would be focusing on cutting greens. Urban market farmers around the world have demonstrated that cutting greens consistently yield some of the highest returns on an income-per-square-foot basis. Two factors figure into the strategy. First, there’s the massive yield-per-square-foot that cutting greens deliver. They are densely planted, grow quickly from seed to maturity—often, in less than a month—and, depending on the variety, they can offer multiple harvests over a span of weeks before yields begin to diminish. Another aspect of growing cutting greens that attracts farmers is that they consistently sell for relatively high retail prices. Coming at it from a consumer perspective, all those considerations also figure in our quest to make the greatest impact on a household food budget within the constraints of a small garden.

Another reason to give greens a leading role in the food security garden is that they have a long established, and widely accepted, part to play in building nutritional density into our diets. (A big serving of kale or collards, for example, can pack more calcium than a cup of milk.) Most people enjoy greens in some form. They are used as foundational ingredients in almost every ethnic cuisine around the world. In fact, no matter where your cultural roots are, chances are, there’s a greens-based dish that figures into your heritage.

The term cutting greens refers to a production technique that allows the farmer to plant densely and harvest while leaves are young and tender. Harvest is typically done either by selectively cutting the outside leaves on each plant, or, more commonly these days, by using a sharp blade to shear the plants off, haircut style, about three inches above the ground.

Although the practice of growing greens this way has long been in my repertoire, it wasn’t until I stumbled onto the work of Carol Deppe and her concept of “eat-all greens,” that I began to really think seriously about both the agronomic and nutritional potential of these crops, and to begin to be more thoughtful about selecting varieties and scheduling successions in my own garden. Deppe presents her take on the cutting greens philosophy in her book, The Tao of Vegetable Gardening (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015), where she devotes a chapter to her unique experiences and techniques.

In addition to drawing inspiration from her approach, I’ve been testing some of the varieties that Deppe recommends for adaptability here in the Northeastern United States. Here’s a rough overview of my key techniques, and how this is all working out in my garden this year.


Varieties

Deppe points out in her books that varieties that do well as cutting greens are those that grow quickly, have an upright growth habit, have tender stems, and that, as a collection, offer a variety of flavors and textures that keep menus interesting. Deppe inspired me to augment my old favorites with some varieties that are new to me, leading to some really nice discoveries. Especially noteworthy for me this year:

  • “Spiggy” Leaf Broccoli
  • “Groninger Blue” Kale,
  • “Tokyo Bekana” (loose leaf) Chinese Cabbage, and
  • “Perpetual spinach” chard (pictured in this post).

Plant Spacing

Unlike Deppe, I use Bio-intensive plant spacing for all of my cutting greens. Most of the varieties are planted on either 3-inch or 4-inch centers. (Watch for a Bio-intensive spacing post here sometime soon where I’ll explain the concept in more detail, and share some nifty ways to do it efficiently.) Each planting consists of about 28 plants if spaced 4-inches apart, or about 50 plants at 3-inch spacing.

Bio-intensive Seedling Stage
The hexagon pattern created by offset Bio-intensive spacing.

 

Bio-intensive Pattern
The hexagon is geometrically the most efficient use of space, and is seen throughout nature (in the honeycomb in beehives, for example).

Succession Planting

The way to keep a steady supply of greens is to plant frequently at intervals throughout the growing season. In today’s feature photo you can see a new succession just coming up next to the mature crop we are now harvesting. Nearby, there should be another succession that is about halfway between these two. This is the goal we’re aiming for throughout the season.

For most of these greens, you can count on two or three highly productive harvests. Market farmers have established that it is most efficient to remove the plantings after these main harvests and use the cleared space to start another crop. You need to plant a new crop about every three weeks in order to have something ready to harvest when you take out the finished crops. The perpetual spinach and kale are the exceptions in my collection, as they have longer productive harvest cycles.

A big consideration in succession planning is heat tolerance. Spinach, and the brassica (cabbage family) crops quickly bolt when the weather gets hot. In my succession plan, these were the crops that went in first. My initial planting started in a flat at home on April 21st, and was transplanted to the garden a week later (April 28th). That planting included:

  • “Green Wave” Mustard
  • “Spiggy” Leaf Broccoli
  • “Yukina” Choy
  • “Groninger Blue” Kale
  • “Tokyo Bekana” (loose leaf) Chinese Cabbage
  • Spinach
  • “Salanova,” a patented baby head lettuce sold by Johnny’s Selected Seeds

My second succession dropped the spinach, substituting “perpetual spinach,” a chard variety that is well suited to cutting green cultivation, and looks and tastes like spinach. This is the crop featured in today’s harvest photo. I removed the bolting spinach plants just last week—and replanted that plot to winter storage carrots—so having the perpetual spinach coming to harvest now is perfect.

Last Saturday, we planted a Fall succession of cutting greens that includes spinach again, since the nights should be cool by the time these plants start to reach maturity in August. There will be two more plantings this year, one in early August to be covered with frost protection hoops for late Fall/early winter harvests, and another in September to overwinter for early Spring greens.

The Right Quantity

Exactly how much of each crop to plant is a variable that each family will have to discover over time. As a starting point, I decided to plant in blocks that are 15-inches by 30-inches. I’ll be documenting yields based on that amount of space. Hopefully, my records will serve as a starting point for readers who are starting down the same road.

One last important thing. Regardless of my ability to use the produce I grow, I make sure to fully harvest every crop at the optimal time. This keeps my yield records accurate, reduces waste, and, most importantly, keeps the plants producing premium quality harvests as long as possible.

If I do bring home more produce than I can use, I wash, spin, and package it for cold storage, and—on that very day—take the excess to the soup kitchen in my community. They are delighted to have premium quality greens, and I feel proud to deliver a quality product that could easily compete with the best produce at the farmers’ market.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Diego says:

    Greens are standing out to me as well, as a new market gardener, for their many benefits: profitability, short time frame, nutrient density. Thanks for the variety tips! I’ve been reading through some other posts (like the one on tools) and appreciate your attention to detail, as well as your blend between home-scale gardening techniques/advice and that which is market-farming-applicable.

    Like

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