The headless cabbage
Story and Photos by A.J. Heinsz-Bailey
What do ancient Greeks, Romans, Scots, and Southerners have in common? The answer is a love for a “mess” of tender, succulent collard greens. What exactly are collards? They are leafy non- heading cabbage family members referred to as Brassica oleracea var. acephala, the last term meaning “without a head.” Collards have deep Southern roots too! Named the state vegetable of South Carolina, collard greens grow quite well in Louisiana gardens. This Southern cool-weather table staple can always be recognized when someone is cooking them. The cabbage smell permeates the house. This smell is well liked by some and scary to others. Solving this issue is easy though – cook the bacon and onions first. (You should be curious by now if you have never eaten collard greens.)
Why should you grow them? Since collards are cold and heat tolerant, they can be grown year round, but they do taste better when grown during the cooler months. The vitamin-rich leaves can be used in many delicious dishes and all level gardeners can grow them. Collards can even be planted in the fall flower garden. The large bluish green rosettes are stunning when mixed with pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) and Dianthus.
The first step to growing great greens is to select a site that receives at least eight hours of full sunlight per day. The leaves will be thin and large if they do not receive enough sunlight. The flavor will also be milder when grown in the shade. They can be grown in a patch or in a row.
Next you need to prepare your soil. Collard roots can spread to as deep as 2 feet, so this step is important. A soil that is rich in organic matter with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 and drains well is necessary for optimal leaf growth. Cultivate the soil to a depth of 12-16 inches for the best feeder root development.
Varieties that perform well in Louisiana include ‘Vates’, ‘Georgia’ (a.k.a. ‘Creole’), ‘Champion’, ‘Flash’, and ‘Top Bunch’ Newer varieties to try include ‘Blue Max’ and ‘Bulldog’. Local feed stores and online catalogs make obtaining seeds easy.
Plant collards from seed March through September. The seeds will sprout in 10 to 14 days and it takes 50-80 days until you can harvest the leaves when grown from seed. Transplants can be put in late February or August. Select transplants with healthy white roots for best results. Seeds should be planted ¼-½ inch deep. Thin the seedling as they grow. Mature plants are large and should be spaced 18-24 inches apart for best plant health. You can eat the thinned plants in a salad.
As your collards start growing, keep them watered but not too wet. The bottom leaves will turn yellow and drop off if you overwater the plants. Keep the area weed-free – weeds compete for soil nutrients. Fertilize with 13-13-13 every four to six weeks starting when the plants are about 6 inches tall; 1 cup of fertilizer for every 30 feet of row is adequate for lush leaf production. Collards are biennials, putting up their flower or seed stalks in the spring of their second season of growth.
Aphids, flea beetles, and caterpillars are the most common collard pests. Inspect your crop daily. Aphids can be found on the undersides of the collard leaves. The caterpillars and flea beetles will eat holes in the leaves. Least-toxic control methods include insecticidal soap or permethrin for the aphids and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) for the caterpillars. Flea beetles can be controlled with neem oil extract or permethrin. Always read and follow the label directions when applying any pesticides.
Proper cultural practices are the key to preventing foliar diseases. Give collards adequate spacing and avoid overhead watering to prevent leaf spots. Check with your county agent to correctly identify leaf problems if needed.
Harvest collards by picking or cutting the leaves from the plant any time during the growing season. The 8-12 inch bottom leaves are generally used for cooking. The top tender leaves are great for fresh salads. The leaves will taste sweeter after a frost. Experiment to discover which leaf stage is your favorite; they are best when used fresh, but can be stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer for four or five days. Collards can be blanched for four or five minutes, placed in zip-lock bags, and put into the freezer for later use. Other ways to cook the greens include steaming, boiling, braising, and sautéing. The leaves can be used fresh as wraps or chopped into slaw. You can even make pickles out of the leaves and stems.
Collards are nutritious: they are high in protein, calcium, manganese, folic acid, and vitamins A, C, and K. They are also a good source of B vitamins and magnesium.
Besides tasting great, collards add flair to the fall flower garden. The extravagantly large bluish green rosettes remain beautiful all winter and can even be used as table decorations.
Make collards a tasty addition to your Southern garden this fall.
Collards can be grown in spring and fall. They add a nice touch of color to the fall flowerbeds and are easy to grow.
‘Champion’, 80 days to harvest, long-standing compact, slow to bolt, bluish green
‘Georgia Southern’, 75 days to harvest, Wavy leaves, slow to bolt, dark green
‘Vates’, 75 days to harvest, low-growing, smooth, dark green
‘Flash’, 73 days to harvest, hybrid, long, slow to bolt, dark green
‘Top Bunch’, 50 days to harvest, very early, dark green
‘Bulldog’, 71 days to harvest, upright growth, bluish green
JOY’S COMFORTING COLLARDS
1 bunch fresh collard greens (24-30 leaves), washed and torn coarsely from the midrib
6 to 8 slices bacon, cooked and chopped
1 pound smoked sausage, cooked and sliced
3-4 cups water or chicken stock
1 sweet onion, diced
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 large clove garlic, minced
1½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
¼-½ teaspoon red pepper flakes or coarsely ground black pepper
Wash and clean the greens (three or four rinses) to remove all of the grit. Remove the hard midrib of each leaf. Cook the bacon and sausage. Chop the bacon into small pieces and set aside with the cooked sliced sausage.
Put the bacon, sausage, and the cleaned greens into a large pot and then add water or chicken stock – add more during cooking as needed. Add the sugar and vinegar. The vinegar removes any bitter taste.
Brown the onion and garlic and then add to the greens. Cook covered for 30-45 minutes at a simmer. Taste for seasonings and add additional salt and pepper if needed. Serve with cornbread for the “pot likker,” the concentrated, vitamin-filled broth that results from the greens and seasonings cooking together. Don’t overcook.
FIND YOURS IN THESE SEED CATALOGS
Eden Brothers, edenbrothers.com
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, rareseeds.com
Territorial Seed Company, territorialseed.com
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, southernexposure.com
Harris Seeds, harrisseeds.com
Pinetree Garden Seeds, superseeds.com
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, johnnyseeds.com
Botanical Interests, botanicalinterests.com
Sow True Seed, sowtrueseed.com
Sustainable Seed Company, sustainableseedco.com