For the better part of the year, we live on salads. They are so easy to grow, good for us, and simple to prepare that they have been staples of our homestead diet for ages.
I have to admit… a while ago, I ran out of good ideas for making our endless array of salads unique.
So, I decided to up my salad spinning and start growing some alternative greens to add to the mix. Not only did this improve the flavor and nutrition of my salad repertoire, but it also extended my tasty green growing season.
Where I live, we get scorching, humid summers. In spring, we also get lots of ups and downs – it feels like winter one day and summer the next – which tends to send some of my traditional lettuces bolting towards bitter.
In case you too have grown bored of basic mescalin and big head lettuces, or want ways to add more greens to your regular diet year round, then consider these tasty, nutritious alternatives in your garden!
Big, beautiful, bring on the bees borage – that lovely flowering plant every gardener usually grows anyhow — is also a delectable edible.
As the companion plant that every vegetable garden deserves, it grows best in well-prepared garden soil. I usually plant a few borage plants about every 15 feet to attract pollinators and use later as a green matter for my compost pile.
As an edible, I start a few extra seeds when I plant borage. As the plants emerge, I harvest the young leaves from the additional plants for several weeks. Then, mince or ribbon those leaves and mix them into salads.
Borage can get prickly. If you don't enjoy that texture, wilt them as you would spinach and serve them as a cooked green.
When my main borage plants grow bigger, I cut my extra plants off at the ground, and chop them up to use in soups.
2. Stinging Nettle
You may want to be careful where you plant this one. Stinging nettle is aptly named. Grab the fresh greens with your bare hands, and you might regret it. Harvest this edible while wearing gloves.
Luckily, once you cook or dry nettle, the formic acid that causes the stinging sensation is disabled.
I like to cut bunches of nettle, tie them with string, and hang them to dry on a laundry line on my porch. Once dry, crush the leaves and use these like you would dried nori flakes or oregano.
Dried nettle tastes great. So I also like to add a tablespoon or two of the dried flakes to my favorite salad dressing recipes.
It feels like a breath of fresh air for my body. Perhaps this is why stinging nettles have long been used as a folk remedy to treat asthma and allergies.
3. Land Cress
I had heard of watercress before I moved to the South. That incredible edible had long been a feature on the menus of some of my favorite fine dining restaurants.
Now, as a North Carolina resident, “creasy greens” have become a staple of my gardening vocabulary and my early spring salads.
Creasy greens are a land cress related to watercress. They grow naturally in many parts of the world in early spring. The greens are terrific both raw in salads and cooked up with a bit of bacon grease and vinegar.
Though they are mostly wild-foraged in my area, you can also grow these in your early spring or late fall garden on purpose. Use the Latin name, Barbarea verna, to search for seeds for home garden cultivation.
4. Good King Henry
Want to eat as the Romans did? Well, then consider adding this leafy green spinach, asparagus, broccoli, and grain substitute to your line-up.
Good King Henry has been called the poor man's asparagus because the edible roots are reminiscent of asparagus stalks and can be wild-foraged. The flower heads can also be cooked and eaten like broccoli.
The leaves are used as substitutes for spinach. Leaves can be eaten raw in small quantities or cooked and eaten like wilted spinach in more substantial amounts.
The dried seeds can be milled into flour for baking. Like millet, the seeds contain saponin (nature's soap). They must be soaked before they are dried.
Good King Henry is a perennial plant in zones 3 – 9 and grows well in the shade. Once you get it started…
That's the one challenge with this plant. You need two things for good results – fresh seeds and stratification in the soil.
Stratification is a term that used to scare me when I saw it on seed packets. Now, I know it means this particular seed is built by nature to overwinter in the ground in cold climates and germinate and grow the following spring.
To simulate nature's way of planting Good King Henry, just put your seeds in a bit of soil in a container that breathes (e.g., a mason jar covered with a cloth or coffee filter).
Leave it in the fridge for a month. Make sure to keep the soil moist, but not wet (to avoid mold issues) while you are stratifying.
After that, start the seeds either indoors, or in a protected location outdoors, in fertile garden soil. Then get ready for a long-lasting green that will add some real flavor flare to your healthy greens repertoire.
5. French Sorrel
“Sorrel is for soup.” This is what the locals told me when I first learned about it in France many years ago.
I had bought a bunch of sorrel leaves at the local grocery and made a salad with them. The sharp, lemony taste was a bit too overwhelming by the plate full. However, friends assured me that it was terrific in soups.
Now that I grow it at home, I know it is also useful for salads if you pick the leaves young before they develop their characteristic lemony tang. And… yes, it is also wonderful in soups.
Sorrel will grow large leaves in good soil and full sun. It will also produce small leaves in poor soil and part shade. In other words, it will grow just about anywhere if given enough time.
To get lots of greens from this plant, you need to harvest often and keep it from flowering. Once it flowers, you can also cut the flower heads and saute them in butter and use them as a flavorful garnish.
Like many wild greens, adapted for the home garden, the leaves can be high in oxalic acid. Use it as flavor complement in salads or cook it to avoid complications.
6. New Zealand Spinach
Despite its name, this plant is not in the spinach family. It's a heat-loving succulent (doesn't need a lot of water) that gets going around mid-summer and keeps going until early fall. Expect it to turn black, wither, and die at the first hint of cold weather.
It grows like a creeping vine and can be used as a seasonal ground cover in edible landscaping. It is an annual in zone 8 and below.
If you let it flower and seed it out, it will self-seed. Next year, you can transplant young, spontaneous seedlings to new locations once they emerge.
This plant is tap-rooted and doesn't like to be transplanted when plants are more than an inch or two tall. Start from seed in the ground or transplant when small.
For raw use, young leaves are best. Personally, though, I cut off about half my vines periodically. I chop them, saute them, and run them through my food processor to use as the base for any creamed spinach dish or dip. (Delicious in spinach and artichoke dip!)
This delicious green is a weed. It often starts vining across your garden as temperatures rise. I used to rip it out when it showed up until I saw someone selling it by the bag full at the farmers market. Then I tasted it.
Sweet, savory, slightly lemony, and so loaded with nutrients my body could feel it almost instantly!
Now, instead of ripping it out, I keep it in check by using it for my daily salads. If it starts to take over, yank large patches of it out – stems and all. Saute, puree, and freeze it for later use as an ingredient in creamed soups.
Once purslane starts to flower, pull most of your plants to avoid over-seeding in future years. Leave at least one or two to plants in place to seed out so you can have more volunteer purslane for next year.
Malabar also referred to as Malabar spinach (even though it is also not true spinach), is another one of those vining succulents that work great as a hot season spinach substitute.
This one vine up rather than out, so you need to give it tall trellises to grow on. A single plant, in good vegetable garden soil, can grow over 30 feet long in under two months.
Some leaves even grow as large as the palm of my hand. This makes harvesting easy.
Malabar leaves are a bit more gelatinous than purslane or New Zealand spinach. Not everyone likes the raw texture. However, once cooked and mixed with cream and butter, it tastes like creamy, earthy, slightly citric spinach.
This is my favorite summer green to saute and throw in quiche mixes. Something about the flavor just compliments the eggs and cream and herbs (like savory and true hyssop), that I use in my quiches.
Give this plant plenty of room and light. When you get tired of cutting it, just let it grow. It makes beautiful pink flowers and deep purple fruits. This plant is fantastic in an edible landscape.
Plant it in a location where you don't mind if it self-seeds each year. It's an aggressive grower and self-propagator.
You are probably already eating varieties of this delicious green at home.
Sometimes it comes disguised as radicchio in salad mixes or chopped up with walnuts and blue cheese in a Belgian endive salad. You may even be enjoying the roasted roots in your French Market coffee blend.
It might also be a cover crop in your garden or your pasture for your livestock. Chicory is family of plants that are almost all edible for humans and animals.
Well… that is unless you try to eat them in the heat of summer. Chicories are only tasty enough to eat when grown in continuously cool conditions. You can grow them in late fall, through winter (in some areas), and into early spring.
Chicories all have that bitter flavor complex which is a good indicator that they will aid in digestion. I think this is why chicories taste so good braised with a little butter and maple syrup and paired with an enormous Thanksgiving feast. This is also why they make a great addition to an end of meal salad.
If you are not already growing chicories in your vegetable garden, make sure to pick up some seeds and add them to your fall or early spring garden line-up.
10. Sea Kale
Are you interested in perennial kale that even grows in sandy soils? Then sea kale is for you!
This plant is often mentioned for permaculture applications because all parts are edible. It has fragrant flowers that attract beneficial insects and can be used as animal fodder. It is drought-tolerant once established.
It has been wild-foraged for 1000 years along the Atlantic coastline in Europe. More recently, it has been used as a cultivated ornamental kale in beach area landscapes.
The seeds are a bit tricky to start. You need to soak them and remove the corky outer layer. They also take at least 21 days to emerge and may require some shade protection to start in warmer temperatures.
Starting the seeds is a bit of work. Once established, though, you can harvest from this plant for years.
Hopefully, you are now inspired to use some green (leafy) alternatives at home!