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By John Martin
Home vegetable gardening has become increasingly popular these days as more people try to make ends meet amid tough economic times. Also, worries abound over what is actually in the food we buy at the local grocery. Here in the South we are lucky enough to grow vegetables nearly year-round, especially the winter greens. Large cabbage-like heads of Collard greens are a common site in many rural gardens in the cool season, but there are many other alternatives for the discriminating diner. What’s more, many of these edibles are also ornamental, adding food for the soul as well as nourishment for the body. Most will persist through mild to average winters, providing the perfect complement to the winter landscape.
Ornamental Kales and Cabbages are widely known and grown, but the culinary ones can be equally attractive and survive freezing weather easily. Red Russian, Redbor, Winterbor, and Tuscan offer a variety of leaf shapes and colors (and flavors). Mustard varieties (a little more tender) offer plain and ruffled leaf shapes, with some extremes found in the deep purple Red Giant and the finely dissected Ruby Streaks. Swiss Chard, traditionally a Yankee favorite (growing well during their summers) is a winter delight here with its brightly-colored stems and leaves. Related, Beet greens (and roots) are an attractive and delicious crop, Bull’s Blood being particularly striking with its deep red-purple leaves. Leaf-type Broccolis, like the Italian Spigariello Liscia, produce gorgeous powder-blue, edible foliage for winter, with the small florets a bonus in spring.
An entire category of greens celebrates the Asian influence and appreciation for these vegetables. Pac Choi, or Bok Choy, is most commonly known; Tatsoi, Misome, De Chong Chae, Komatsuna, and others are variations on the theme, with green or sometimes brilliantly purple leaves, or striking white stems. The prolific Mizuna, a mustard relative, is one of the easiest to grow, attractive, and delicious as well. Seed catalogues often list a bewildering variety of related and equally rewarding crops to grow.
For the winter salad, Lettuces, Endives, and Radicchios lead the way, with colorful contributions made from baby leaves of all listed above, plus other cool-growing additions like Arugula, Cilantro, Dill and Fennel, not to mention the flowers of the ubiquitous Pansy. Lettuces range in leaf color from chartreuse to deep red, sometimes speckled, with wide variation in leaf shape, though it may be the first to go in a severe winter. The Endives and Radicchios, on the other hand, are winter-tough, persisting until the next summer when they reward you with the sky-blue flowers common to all of the Chicories. Leaves are attractive too, from the ruffled chartreuse of Bianca Riccia to the red variegation of Castelfranco to the deep red of the Mesola types of radicchio. Culinary worth on these may not outweigh the ornamental appeal, depending on the individual.
Sow seed or buy starts beginning in August, but remember that most are susceptible to aphid and caterpillar damage until cooler weather arrives later on. Treat with Dipel or other organic pesticide for caterpillars, and a soap-based one for aphids. Recipes abound on the Internet for the various greens listed above, and their nutritional value is exemplary. Sometimes, though, our favorite is the visual feast they can provide on a cold winter day during a leisurely walk through the garden.