How much of my food can I grow in a small garden area? This is the question I receive most frequently from residents interested in starting vegetable gardens. Like all things in life, the answer is: it depends. In this case, it depends on the size of the garden, the amount of sun, and what you want to eat.
Since sun and garden space are difficult to change, the easiest way to eat more of your homegrown vegetables, is to start eating vegetables that are high yielding and easy to grow. Hence, we discover the magic of leafy greens.
Leafy greens are a backyard food gardener’s best friend. They are easy to grow, harvest, and cook. They produce an abundance of food even in low-light conditions. Moreover, they taste great, supply excellent nutrition, and look good in your garden. If you are a brown thumb, or a novice vegetable gardener, leafy greens are a great place to start.
While there are numerous varieties of leafy greens to try, I recommend chard, kale and collards. They grow productively all winter long, and even withstand summer heat. Space your plants 1 foot to 18 inches apart, both within and between rows. If you start from seed, sow every few inches in rows and then thin out to the recommended spacing. To allow each plant more room, offset planting between rows so that each plant sits between the two in the next row over, forming a zigzag pattern.
Plants can be harvested as soon as they have a fair number of medium sized leaves. It’s better to take a few leaves from each plant, rather than lots of leaves from one plant, so that all of the plants can recover quickly. Harvest with two hands, or using cutters, to make sure you don’t tug on the plant while tearing off the leaves. And the best part is, after you harvest, the leaves grow right back!
There are many ways to integrate lots of leafy greens into your diet. In addition to salad, you can quickly cook leafy greens into any combination of vegetables. Start by steaming them, or stir-frying with olive oil, garlic, lemon and salt. Add them in at the end of your vegetable stir-fries, or boil them in stocks, soups, and stews. Leafy greens go well with meat or tofu, rice, noodles, and many legumes. I like to add leafy greens into my lentil soups. When I cook red beans, I scoop some of the broth into a frying pan and use it to boil the greens with other vegetables.
Adding lots of greens to your diet is an excellent way to improve your families’ nutrition. They are rich in beta carotene, vitamin C, and other anti-carcinogens. They provide excellent sources of fiber, iron, and calcium. In fact, collard greens have the same concentration of calcium as milk. Just 3.5 ounces of chard gives you all the vitamin A and half the vitamin C that you need each day.
Growing more of your fruits and vegetables means eating more of what you can grow. If you want to eat better and grow your own food, plant chard, kale and collards in your garden this year and watch the magic unfold.