Renee Shepherd of Felton, California, can make dinner in 7 to 10 minutes. Her secret? She harvests fresh greens from her garden, then whips up stir-fry meals around them. She favors tender young mustard leaves, curly kale, and crunchy-stemmed baby bok choy, or pak choi. "I heat some peanut oil, throw in minced garlic and ginger, maybe some beef strips and tofu chunks. After a few minutes, I add a mix of greens and cook them quickly. Voilà ― a nice, healthy dinner."
Rose Marie Nichols McGee of Albany, Oregon, likes to stir-fry greens from different parts of the world, mixing Tuscan kale, Shanghai pak choi, and Japanese mizuna. "Greens are cross-continental, so it's one-world, one-pot cooking," she says.
Shepherd and McGee, who both own seed companies, are just two of many gardener-cooks who have discovered the pleasures of cultivating leafy greens. Growing your own from seed gives you the greatest selection. If you're intimidated by seeds, don't be ― these crops grow quickly. We tried many varieties in Sunset's test garden; our top-rated choices are pictured above.
From planting to harvest
In mild-winter climates, start seeds in August or September. In hot inland valleys or low desert areas, wait until late September or October. In cold-winter areas (Sunset climate zones 1-3), sow no later than early August, or wait until spring to plant.
Sow seeds directly in fertile soil in a sunny spot. Plant in rows according to package instructions, or broadcast seeds in blocks by variety. Cover seeds lightly with ½ inch of fine soil or compost; keep seedbed evenly moist. Protect from birds with floating row covers or netting. When the first true leaves appear, thin seedlings to 1 inch apart (use thinnings in stir-fries).
To harvest leaves, wait until plants are about 6 inches tall. Then, using scissors, cut leaves 1 to 2 inches above soil level; for baby bok choy, snap off leaves at the base. Water well and fertilize lightly with diluted fish emulsion. Plants will sprout new leaves for more harvestings.
Sources: Mix your own seeds or buy a packaged seed blend such as Renee's Stirfry Mix Pan-Pacific Greens, which contains Asian red kale, baby bok choy, mizspoona (a cross between mizuna and tatsoi), and red mustard.
Nichols Garden Nursery (NGN); 800/422-3985
Territorial Seed Company; 541/942-9547
Renee's Garden Seeds; 888/880-7228