Many Americans have a remarkably unrefined taste in salads; my brother has long counted himself in this group. Dice up some crunchy Iceberg type lettuce, splash on a dollop of ranch dressing, maybe chop a leaf of romaine up if you’re feeling frisky and call it a salad, this is the way we’ve been trained to eat. I’m here, a voice in the supermarket produce aisle wilderness calling, to tell you it’s time to open up your palate, look beyond lettuce, live a little, and add some spice to your life and salad bowl with three of my favorite easy to grow leafy greens: Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion.
Before we get into species specifics, let’s cover a couple of reasons you should grow them at home! Growing your own flavor-packed greens has many benefits. First, leaves from these plants can be difficult to find anywhere but specialty health food stores or high-end supermarkets. Growing your own ensures a consistent supply, especially if one utilizes the “cut and come again” harvesting method (just remove the leaves and stems you need that day, leave the crown intact and allow the plant to regrow for next week’s harvest). Second, you do not have to worry about the too common food safety recalls and other health scares involving “leafies”. If you follow standard safety practices (clean irrigation water, wash picked leaves and store properly, etc.), you’ll be eating scrumptious salads when everyone else is begrudgingly trashing entire bags of recalled store-bought greens. Finally, each of these species double as gorgeous accent plants in
raised beds or containers. I love plants that do heavy lifting as both eye-catching ornamentals and delicious edibles!
Mizuna is a little known member of the mustard family that is quickly becoming one of my favorite leafy greens! It faces no major pest or disease problems in the garden and it is extremely tolerant of the cold weather Floridians periodically face through the winter, laughing off frost. Mizuna possesses lovely, deeply cut, pale green, fringy leaves complete with crispy white stems, all of which are edible – no need to separate stems when processing to eat! This lovely little Asian green has a mild peppery taste (think a toned-down Arugula) and adds perfect flavor and texture to any salad!
Many Southerners are well acquainted with traditional Mustard greens and their preparation (more than a little bacon and salt) but may not be aware of newer Mustard cultivars that give the species a bit of refinement and make it a salad celebrity! This winter, I’m growing a cultivar of Mustard called ‘Scarlet Frills’ (aptly named with finely serrated burgundy-red leaves) and really enjoy its peppery horseradish taste as a foil to the mildly sweet taste of traditional salad greens like lettuce and spinach. Mustards are extremely cold tolerant and slow to bolt, making it a mainstay in the salad garden all winter long; you really get your money’s worth from a few Mustard plants! However, even if this leafy green wasn’t delicious, it would be worth growing. The “fancier” Mustard cultivars are highly ornamental and deserve a spot in any cool season container garden.
Finally, the one that turns up the most noses when I mention growing and eating it, Italian Dandelion (Cichorium intybus)! I’m not advocating foraging in your turfgrass to find dinner, in fact, Italian Dandelion is not a true dandelion (it’s actually a chicory). However, it does share a number of features with its weedy cousin, including leaves that are similar in appearance and a vigorous taproot. That’s where the comparisons stop though, as Italian dandelion is a superior garden plant, more upright growing, much larger, and deeper green (some varieties including the one I grow ‘Italiko Red’ have red veined leaves) than its wild cousin. Unlike Mizuna and some of the milder mustards, Italian Dandelion is a bit of an acquired taste. It imparts a strong bitter flavor that may be cut with milder greens in a salad or cooked down to reduce bitterness. Either way you try it, put Italian Dandelion on your cool season garden next year!
Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion all require similar growing conditions. In Florida, leafy greens are cool season vegetables, growing through the fall, winter and spring months. Seeds should be sown in late September and can be stagger-sown (plantings every couple of weeks) to ensure a steady supply through spring. As a rule, they prefer rich, well-drained soil high in organic matter. These soil conditions are achievable with either quality commercial potting mixes or homemade concoctions of compost and pine bark. The beds or containers you fill with the aforementioned soil should be sited near a good water source (plants that aren’t convenient to water get neglected, trust me) in an area that gets 6-8 hours of full sunlight. I like to topdress at planting (if using transplants) or after germination (if using seed) with a good general purpose, slow-release fertilizer, many formulations and brands that work are widely available for purchase. Finally, be sure to purchase seed from a quality source. Online purveyors Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and Sow True Seeds are good places to start, though the options are nearly endless!
Next year, when planning your cool season garden, remember to add a little spice with these three leafy greens, Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion! For more information about cool season gardening and other topics, consult your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.