Secrets to Harvesting Tender, Sweet, Greens

April 20, 2008

I knew that I wasn’t the only organic gardener flaunting the vegetable gardening rules and trying ideas that stray from the norm.

Jack recently sent in the following email in which he shared a tip for harvesting collard greens, along with some interesting observations on the state of affairs in the dwindling seed industry:

“Hi Kenny, I liked the page you have on the web about collards, and I though you might find my somewhat unconventional harvest method interesting. I discovered this method by chance or maybe desperation.”

Doing Away with the Book… and Tough Collards

Collard Greens in the Garden“Collard greens are not part of my culinary heritage. I started growing them to expand my repertoire of fall and early winter vegetables, and so I harvest the big outer leaves for cooking as all my garden books said I should. This made for healthy eating, I kept telling myself, but it also seemed like a sort of penance, not to mention the long cooking time.”

“The second year I was growing them, it was a loose-head type, I had a real nice row, way more than I could eat, and a severe and early cold snap was headed our way so I knew I would soon lose them all. (I am in eastern PA.) One night I said, I’m just going to cut one of these tender blanched hearts, forget the chewy strong flavored big leaves.”

“I brought it in, chopped it up fine and cooked it in a frying pan with some bacon, onions and just a little bit of water – steamed it really. I have never bothered with the big outer leaves again. The tender hearts are mild and sweet and cook up fast. The only downside is you have to plant a longer row.”

Gourmet Quality Collard Greens and Seeds

Collard Greens Plant“In the spring of 86, I lived in England, down in the SW on the Devon Cornwall border. The local green grocer offered what looked to me like collards, which he said was grown down farther in Cornwall where the weather is milder.”

“It looked like the collards as I had harvested them with loose inner heads of frilly chartreuse colored tender leaves. So that is apparently how they do them there too.”

“It’s getting harder to get much choice in collard varieties these days. The seed companies are drying up and trimming their offerings. And even the Seed Savers Exchange only offers a handful. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has four varieties including Morris Heading.”

Jack, thank you for sharing your tips for harvesting tastier collard greens. I usually shake my head when I see the bundles of huge collard leaves for sale at the grocer. I agree with your preference for picking leafy greens when they are young, tender, and much smaller in size.

Mother Nature’s Natural Seasoning for Leafy Greens

The only down side is that if you harvest the growing tip in the center of the plant it will not continue to produce additional leaves. That’s not a concern at the end of the season but can limit overall production during earlier harvests. To get around this harvest the leaves individually and allow the very center of the plant to continue growing and expanding.

Tender Leafy GreensWhen harvested long before maturity, collards and other leafy greens are delicate, tender, and will cook in a matter of just a few short minutes. Baby collards or kale picked while the leaves are just a few inches in size are also great for including in tossed salads or simply eating raw.

Frost and cold temperatures also have a way of sweetening and enhancing the flavor of greens. While the leaves can be harvested and enjoyed at any stage, the taste is improved by harvesting leaves that have been seasoned by exposure to cold and frost. The cold temps will bring out the subtle colors of the greens in addition to the naturally sweet flavors.

I share your concerns over the loss of seed varieties. There aren’t a lot of collard varieties to begin with so the last thing we need is to lose any. And while there seems to be a healthy number of small heirloom seed companies around, there are also huge corporate seed conglomerates buying out the smaller seed companies and discontinuing more and more seeds.

Other Related Vegetable Gardening Posts:

  • I remove an outer leaf or two from many plants. I’m trying kale for the first time (growing and eating); hopefully it won’t be as strong tasting as collards, which I’ll eat, but my husband doesn’t like them. At least collards aren’t as strong as mustard greens. I grew chard a few seasons back, but we didn’t like them very much because they were so tasteless. So after reading about mixing chard in with stronger greens to tone them down, I’ll be growing chard again.

  • Susan

    We love kale steamed for 5 minutes, without any other seasoning. Even my kids like it this way! It is rather strong-tasting, but worth a try. It is also good chopped up in vegetable soup. I tear it off the stem in small pieces and discard the stems.

  • May we please use this picture ( collard greens) in a flyer for our Clean greens Project in Seattle and Duvall. I’m a graphic designer/farmer apprentice, so it will be used tastefully with high quality. We are having a Walk August 9th to raise funds for our Duvall Farm. Our goal is to provide our community with organic produce and non-organic/affordable prices and establish an Agricultural Center for Youth. Thank you for your consideration. -Julien

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Julien, yes you may use the collard greens photo on your flyer for the Clean Greens Project. If you need a higher resolution photo just send me an email and I’ll check to see if I can locate the original photograph. Good luck with the walk and the Agricultural Center.

  • mary

    What type of insects attach to the plant, what type of bug is yellow and sticks to the underside of the leaf and is yellow looking and are the leaves safe to eat if they can all be removed?

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Mary, they could be aphids or many other insects, but yes the leaves are still safe to eat as long as toxic chemicals aren’t what you used to remove the bugs!

  • David Chan

    Hello Kenny,
    I’m from Central Alabama, Birmingham area. One of my neighbor gave me some collard plants. It was about 9in. tall,what i noticed is there are no leaves a good 6ins from the roots up. Anyway, i found a spot and put it in. So far, the leaves are shedding slowly and its more like a Giraffe’s neck now. What is causing the problem.

  • Kenny Point

    Hi David, some collard varieties just seem to grow in the manner that you described… harvest and use the individual outer leaves and let the center of the plant continue to produce new leaves.

  • Marilyn

    Hello, a few months ago, my northern California neighbor shared her harvest of collards. The leaves were a deep green variegated with a rich purple. I cooked them and I am sure they had to be the best I had ever tasted…and I am from Georgia (so that says a lot). Since then, I have been trying to find out what variety of greens those were to no avail. My neighbor harvested hers and did not remember where or how she got them…lol. Do you know what they could possibly be and how to get more?

  • Kenny Point

    Hi Marilyn, it’s difficult to say exactly what variety of collards you had but there aren’t as many varieties under cultivation as other leafy greens like kale and mustard. I’m trying a new variety this year called “Old Timey Collards” that you may want to research to find out if it is the one that you are looking for.

  • I just tried growing collard greens this season. I wanted to know when is the right time to harvest? Can I pick some of the leaves now & cook them? They are approx. 10 inches tall yet very light in color.

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