Digging In: A Gardening Series
Kimberly Cooper, Historic Garden Manager
Southern food as we know it today has been influenced by European, Native American and African ingredients and techniques. Europeans brought livestock such as pigs and familiar crops that grew well in the Southern American climate. The Native Americans used salting and smoking meats as methods of food preservation. The enslaved Africans brought over more new crops that fared well in the southern climates. Plantation owners had enslaved Africans learn their favorite European dishes, which the African Americans then improved upon with seasonings and new ingredients.
All these influences can be seen in a single dish that has become a soul food staple: southern turnip greens. The turnip greens themselves were first brought to America by the European settlers. The settlers, and later plantation owners, learned how to salt and preserve cuts of pork from the Native Americans. Ingredients such as hot pepper vinegar were then used by the enslaved African Americans to improve the dish with a flavorful kick.
Nowadays, greens are prepared any way you can think of. Personally, I love my greens chopped up in soups and stews to make them hearty and add a source of fiber. People have also found them to be a great bread alternative for low carb diets. Truly, the versatility of greens makes them a must-have in our daily meals. But why would we go to such lengths to incorporate them in our diet?
Turns out, greens are loaded with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. All these nutrients mean you get quite a range of health benefits just by incorporating more greens into your diet. In order to get these health benefits, though, you must look for the best greens. Nature was kind to us in this manner. The easiest way to tell if those leafy greens are packed with nutrients is to look at their color. Greens that are dark green or even red to purple in color have loads more nutrients in them than light green to almost white greens. The main comparison I use is iceberg lettuce. It may look nice in your salad bowl, but iceberg lettuce is the equivalent of eating water. While water is healthy for you, it does not contain nutritional values a person needs for a healthy body.
Mustard greens are generally very bitter and spicy, but there are some varieties that have a mild flavor, such as Early Mizuna. Mustard greens are usually mixed in with turnip greens to help offset their bitterness. Some people like to use young mustard greens in fresh salads to add a spicy kick. Mustards can be found in broadleaf and cutleaf forms. This does not affect their taste and is mostly a preference of aesthetics. You can find varieties of mustard with variations of green and red to purple. Because mustard lacks the waxier coating that hardy winter greens have, they are more sensitive to lower temps and will die from a hard frost.
Collards may be the most common green you will find in your grocery store besides lettuce. Collards are produced all year long, but the best harvests taste-wise happen in the coldest months of the year, between the first and last frosts. They grow in loose leaf and heading forms, meaning you can find them in large clumps of leaves, or they will form a head much like a cabbage. Their coloration ranges from green, bluish green and red to purple. Many collard varieties have a glaucous appearance, like Alabama Blue. Collards will typically live through the winter months without issue. Even in hard frosts and snow, I have found the leaves of collards will freeze and thaw without lasting damage.
Turnip greens are a very interesting and underrated green. Their flavor depends greatly on the age of the leaves. Young leaves will be sweet but become bitter before turning peppery as they mature. You can harvest the tops of turnips to make your favorite greens dish or there are varieties grown solely for the greens. Seven Top is a variety of turnips grown solely for greens production. Instead of producing a bulbous turnip root, all of Seven Top’s energy goes into leaf production. There is not much variety in the coloration of turnip greens. They are all green, varying slightly in shade. Turnip greens are not as hardy as collards, but they can survive frosts and still produce a decent harvest.
Kale has become more popular in recent years due to health food trends. It’s crunchy with a strong flavor when fresh. The younger leaves are more tender with a milder flavor. This is your go-to green when you want to add texture to your dishes or your garden. You will mostly find kale in shades of green and sometimes with hints of red in the stems. It is not truly deer-resistant, but from personal experience, it is not as desired by wildlife when compared to other greens.
Swiss Chard may be the most visually appealing green in the industry. Its flavor is like beets and spinach but with a slight bitterness. The stems and leaves will often be cooked separately, but cooking them together will provide a variety of texture for your dish. The stems have the most color. They range from red and orange to yellow and white, while the leaves stay mostly green. Swiss chard is winter hardy, but in cases of extreme cold, like single digits to negatives, you will likely see them die off.
A big movement in the gardening world currently is foodscaping. Foodscaping is a garden plan that incorporates edible plants into the ornamental landscape. What’s great about foodscaping is anyone can do it. Foodscaping is an HOA-friendly way to have home-grown vegetables in your backyard without having to set up separate garden beds. The best part is you get to enjoy a bounty of colors, textures and home-grown food. And don’t think we are leaving out apartment living. Foodscaping is possible with patio containers too!
Greens, of course, would be a staple in cold season foodscaping. The colorations of greens can pair quite nicely with cool season plants such as violas, snapdragons, pansies and dianthus. Try to picture with me a bed planting with collards such as the variety Alabama Blue, and all around these collards are masses of viola, dianthus and snapdragons. Alabama Blue collards have interesting bluish green foliage with reddish purple veining. This coloration allows us to mix in violas with purple hues, dianthus with red and pink hues and deep red snapdragons for a dramatic color show. Perhaps you are more of a container person; you enjoy container gardening more or you live in an apartment with a small balcony. With a big enough container, you can arrange violas or pansies of your choice with early mizuna mustard and snapdragons to create an eye-catching display.