Growing Leaf Vegetables

By   March 20, 2016

When it comes to fresh, tasty nutrition, growing lettuce, spinach, and other leaf vegetables is ideal. These plants are easy to tend and take little time to go from seed to salad. Each variety offers a mix of vitamins and minerals.

Generally, the darker the leaves are, the higher the levels of health-promoting trace elements they contain. Fortunately, homegrown greens can be harvested at just the right time to keep bitterness at bay. If you prefer a milder flavor, try growing lettuce varieties like leafy romaine or butterhead. These are much tastier than iceberg and capture more nutrients from the soil.

Kale is one of the easiest to grow leaf vegetables

Kale is one of the easiest to grow leaf vegetables

Collard greens, kale, and cabbage are additional leaf vegetable  choices. You can also harvest the edible foliage of turnips from your garden.You might think that the instructions for growing lettuce, kale, and spinach would be basically the same. However, these plants are actually quite different species. For example, kale and cabbage are related to broccoli while spinach is in the same family of vegetables like beets. So, each one has slightly different requirements. However, they all thrive in full sun during cool weather.

Soil Requirements

Kale and collard greens prefer a somewhat acidic soil pH from 5.5-6.5. Spinach and lettuce grow well in the 6.0-7.5 range. Cabbage falls somewhere in the middle as far as pH requirements go. Loose, leafy greens are fast growing vegetables that don’t require heavy, ongoing fertilization.  An application of organic compost before planting should be sufficient to provide the necessary nitrogen. For cabbage, you may need to test your soil to make sure the calcium and magnesium levels are within optimal range.

Many varieties of leaf vegetables (with the exception of lettuce) have a fairly deep root system. Cultivate the soil to a depth of 18-24 inches for best results. If you grow these in pots, choose a container that is deep enough for the roots to develop fully. A raised garden bed provides the best environment for growing lettuce and other greens. It promotes good drainage.

Planting & Care of Leaf Vegetables

Young leaf lettuce

Young leaf lettuce

These vegetables are a classic two season crop. Sow seeds outdoors early in the spring (a couple of weeks before the last frost) and 2-3 months before the first frost in the fall. Planting depth is 1/4-1/2 inch. You can start seeds indoors as well. Seedlings should be grown in peat starter pots so the root system isn’t disturbed during transplanting.These are thirsty plants that appreciate being watered every day. This helps them thrive and prevents wilting as the weather warms. Water around the base of each plant rather than spraying the leaves. Keep the soil moist but not flooded. Use mulch between the rows to prevent moisture from evaporating and to keep weeds at bay.

Growing Tips for Leaf Vegetables

You can start these plants out fairly close together (about 6”). As they grow, thin them vigorously. Eat the baby leaves from the plants you pull out – they taste great. The final spacing for mature plants should be between 12-18” depending on the variety you are growing. Lettuce, spinach, kale, and other loose-leaf varieties can be harvested continuously.

Removing the base/outer leaves shocks these plants and helps keep them from bolting (sending up a flower stalk). Additional leaves will continue to grow from the center of the plant. Bear in mind that the smaller the leaves are, the better they will taste. If there is any sign of a flower stem growing, harvest the whole plant immediately before it turns bitter.

Many vegetable gardeners find that a fall crop harvested after the first frost is especially sweet. For leafy vegetables like kale that already have a strong flavor, you might take this into consideration. Depending on how cold your winter is, you may even be able to sow an additional batch of kale before the first frost in the fall. Cover the plants over the winter, and harvest them in the spring.

Additional Notes

Spinach is the fastest grower with leaves ready for your dinner table within 40-50 days. Count on about 60 days from planting to harvest when you are growing lettuce, collard greens, and kale. We like to plant several crops of these vegetables at two-week intervals. That way, we don’t have to pick and eat it all at the same time.

cabbage plant

Cabbage and it’s close relative Kale are often called “the world’s healthiest foods”

Cabbage needs to grow to its fully mature stage before its densely packed leaf head is ripe for harvesting. This takes about 90 days. Wrap cabbage heads in plastic and store them at temperatures below 46 degrees to keep them from spoiling.

All your other leafy vegetables should be stored in your refrigerator in the crisper drawer and used as soon as possible to avoid wilting. Kale and collard greens can also be chopped and frozen for longer storage. They are typically cooked anyway for the best flavor and texture.