Host of River Cottage Australia, Paul West, shares his expert advice to help you plant and enjoy greens at home.
I'm often asked the question “What is the best thing to start growing at home?” The first plants that spring to mind are the glamour pusses of the vegetable world like tomatoes, eggplants, chillies and zucchinis. These are plants that have large, harvestable fruit and come in a rainbow spectrum of alluring colours. As delicious as those vegetables are, I recommend that people start with something a little more practical, easy to grow and even easier to use. If you're not already then you should be growing your own greens. “But why?!” I hear you ask, “they're so boring and I can get them so cheaply from the supermarket, can't I grow tomatoes instead, PLEASE!” Hear me out.
Firstly, let’s talk about the health benefits. Leafy greens are easily digested, packed full of a swag load of vitamins and nutrients and are rich in chlorophyll and living enzymes. They oxygenate and alkalise the blood while improving digestion. Forget acai berries and chia seeds, greens are the REAL superfood and best of all you can easily incorporate them into almost every meal (though I'm yet to come up with a decent recipe for a leafy green desert!).
Incorporating greens into your diet is one thing, but how and where those greens are grown is another important, motivating factor to trying your hand at growing them at home. I've had the opportunity to visit a few farms that exclusively grow greens for the major supermarkets, they are incredibly impressive operations composed of a landscape that appears to have been draped in a frilly, multi-coloured carpet. The major drawback that I witnessed on these visits is that such operations are heavily dependent on chemical inputs, both to feed the vigorous growth of their crop and to keep the multitude of pests that like to feast on tender leaves at bay. So before the greens are even harvested they are having a negative impact on their surrounding environment.
Once the leaves are mature, the farmer harvests the crop, washes it, dries it, packages and chills it. They are then delivered to the supermarket's wholesale facility, where they'll stay for a day or two before being sent to your local supermarket. The greens are then placed on the shelf where they sit in relatively ideal conditions until you, the enthusiastic consumer comes and buys a bag to eat. That doesn't sound too bad, right? Only 4ish days from the farm to the consumer may seem like a short period of time but greens are extremely perishable, and even when kept in ideal conditions are fading in nutritional value from the second that they are picked. When you eat your greens freshly harvested they are loaded with beneficial enzymes and natural sugars.
Hopefully by now you're foaming at the mouth at the prospect of trying your hand at growing your own greens at home, and the good news is that greens are arguably the easiest veggie crop of all to grow. To begin you'll need to decide whether you want to grow in containers or in the ground, though if you're just starting out then I would suggest trying containers first. You can use just about any old thing as a container, as long as it can hold ample soil and will allow water to drain through it. Next you'll have to select a nice sunny spot to grow your greens, somewhere that gets at least 4 hours of direct sunlight a day and is sheltered from damaging winds. Once you have your container and site sorted then you're going to need soil, without healthy soil you can't have healthy plants.
For the beginner, track down some high quality, organic potting mix to give you the best possible start. Now you're ready to get planting, select varieties of leafy green that can be harvested continually such as kale, silverbeet, loosehead lettuces, rocket, english spinach and rainbow chard. Keep the soil moist and give your plants a fortnightly feed of seaweed emulsion. Harvest the outer leaves while they are still tender, leaving the heart to keep growing. It's really that easy!