For those who grew up in the South, collard greens were likely a staple vegetable that appeared on dinner tables at home and in little side dishes at diners. Typically, they came in the form of sloppy green mush, cooked down into something that hardly required chewing, often with a chunk of meat or animal fat swimming around in the watery concoction.
But, times have changed, not only in terms of who appreciates collard greens but also in how they are being used. Gone are the days of this leafy green being relegated to Southern cuisine, and gone are the days of it being cooked down to mush. Collards are being used as wraps, in stir-fries, and for lively Caribbean stews. There is a new versatility with collard recipes, and that’s got folks excited.
For gardeners, there’s even more to be excited about! Collards are incredibly agreeable plants to grow, and they work in that hot southern climates as well as chilly northern states. Like most greens, collard greens are cold-weather crops. What makes them distinct is that they are heat-tolerant, too. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The Good Stuff in Collard Greens
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It should probably go without saying that collard greens are a boon to a healthy diet. Dark, leafy greens are the mainstay in stuff-that’s-good-for-you lists, and collards are just that. They are in the same family as other well-established health food powerhouses like broccoli and kale.
Collards are rich in several vitamins, including vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin K (great for healthy bones). It is also rich in calcium, magnesium, and iron, important and sometimes sought-after minerals in a plant-based diet. They also have a lot of fiber and a notable amount of protein.
All of this goodness has been shown to help with digestion, diabetes, cancer prevention, sleeping, skin health, and hair growth, to name but a few. And collards provide these benefits best when cooked lightly as opposed to boiled down to nothing.
Growing Your Own Collard Greens
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Unlike most cold-loving cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage and Brussels sprouts, collard greens will withstand some heat, which possibly makes them a little easier to grow, particularly for those in warmer climates (hence, the South-loving collards). That said, like these other cool weather crops, collards improve after a frost. Consequently, most growers like to plant them in late summer or early autumn.
Collard greens like to have full sun. Like most greens, they like rich soil and plenty of moisture.
They get large, so once seedlings pop up, they should be thinned to about 18 inches apart, and if you are all in and planting loads, the rows should be spaced two to three feet apart. It’s not a bad idea to give them compost tea every couple of weeks.
Companion plants to grow with collards include any number of fresh herbs (dill, thyme, sage), stuff from the onion family (garlic, leeks, onions), and other brassicas (bok choy, kale, broccoli, etc). But, they don’t agree with strawberries or pole beans.
Harvesting Those Collard Greens
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Collard greens are praised for their huge, dark leaves, which don’t form a head like cabbage but loose leaves like kale. While we often see collard greens that are a foot long and bundled by the remnants of a stem, they don’t necessarily have to be harvested this way. It’s perfectly fine, and reaching that point takes about two and a half months.
However, collards can be treated as a cut-as-you-need plant, the same way kale and loose-leaf lettuces work. In this case, the young leaves can be taken as baby collards, or the large outer leaves can be harvested as needed, and the plant will continue to produce for months. In many US climates, collards will survive the winter and provide fresh food throughout.
Using Your Collards
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As we established from the outset, collard greens are much more versatile than the boiled version found in soul food diners. They are tough enough to be quickly steamed and used as wraps instead of tortillas. The young leaves especially are tender enough for a quick sauté in stir-fries. They hold up to cooking in stews. They can be included in homemade sauerkrauts or even fresh slaws. Anything cabbage or kale can do, collards might just do it better!
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