Leafy Vegetables – By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”

This week we really need to dive into the garden and get our plants growing to make sure we get as much from our fall harvest as possible. If you read my last article you know it is time to plant your fall garden. This week I want to go over some of the leafy vegetables you may want to consider. Cabbage, Collard Greens, Lettuce, Mustard Greens, Spinach, and Swiss Chard are all favorites of mine and you should try them too. If you follow the easy instructions I will outline below, your harvest will give you all the leafy vegetables you need for your kitchen so let us get started.  

            I like cabbage because of the many choices you have in leaf texture and color. Instead of having totally green rows, I like to include varieties which will add color to my garden and dimension to my plate. Choose cabbage varieties such as Gormet or Market Prize for the standard large head green varieties then inter-mix your plantings with the red Ruby Perfection variety. These varieties grow well together but as they mature, the color they give off will be rewarding. If you did not start your seedlings as I had suggested several weeks ago, you will need to obtain starter plants from your local nursery or garden center and plant them in rows about fifteen inches apart. Be sure to leave at least two feet between rows. I like to plant at least ten heads but you will need to determine the number you plant based on the size of your garden. 

            Remember, cabbage have shallow root systems so they need to be watered regularly. A light layer of mulch will help keep the plants hydrated especially if we get a warm spell in November or between watering. As the cabbage heads begin to mature, be sure to monitor the moisture level of your soil because many cabbage heads will crack or split as they near maturity due to the lack of adequate moisture. Once your cabbage is ready to harvest (about eighty days), remove the head from the base of the plant using a sharp knife leaving the lower portion of the stem of the plant intact. Sometimes, you may get a second or third head to form after removing the main cabbage. 

            Collard Greens and Mustard Greens are another favorite to many gardeners. Collards grow fairly quickly from transplants available at most garden centers this time of year. Look for varieties such as Georgia, Vates, or the hybrid HiCrop. Collards leaves closely resemble cabbage however; some leaves are smooth while others are waxy. Plant your collards in full sun in a rich soil improved with compost and make sure you mulch your plants to retain moisture. I plant my collards in rows about fifteen inches apart and if I use different varieties, I will group them together as some varieties grow larger than others. You only need about ten plants to provide enough for the average family as collards will continue to produce for several months. If you have a small garden you may need two rows to accommodate ten plants.

            Collards are ready to harvest in about six weeks after planting your transplants. Remove the lower leaves as they reach full size. The younger leaves will continue to grow producing enough new leaves for use every seven to ten days. Cooler weather tends to give the collards a better taste so if you plant now you should have several great harvests through the end of the year. Make sure you always wash your collards before using them to remove any dirt or insects you might not see.

            Mustard Greens are similar to Collards but they grow much faster. You should be ready to harvest your first leaves within thirty days after transplanting them into the garden. Look for varieties such as the Green Wave or Florida Broadleaf. There is also a red variety called Giant Redbut they are hard to find in transplants. Plant your Mustard Greens about six inches apart but leave at least fifteen inches between the rows. I like to plant seven to ten plants in order to harvest enough leaves for a good meal. Mulch you plants just like the collards and water regularly. Harvest well formed leaves from the lowest part of the plant and allow the new leaves to continue growing. You should be able to harvest your plants every seven days. If left in the ground after the season is over, then your plants will go to seed and you may get volunteers to come up in the spring. 

            Spinach and Swiss Chard are two more plants every garden should have. Sow spinach from seed directly into the garden. Seed should be planted about one half to three quarters of an inch deep and I like to space them about four inches apart in the rows. Make at least two rows to insure having enough spinach for the table. Most garden centers carry seed packets and germination is quick in moist soils. Mulch seedlings once they start to grow and harvest young leaves or the entire plant in about fifty days. Once you harvest the plants you should sow additional seeds in the spaces left behind. If you start the plants now you should have at least two crops this season.

            Swiss Chard should be started from transplants now and leave at least ten inches between plants to accommodate their long stems. Look for the variety Fordhook at your favorite garden center. Some garden centers may have the red variety which adds color to the garden or the plate. Harvest individual leaves in about fifty days when they attain about ten inches in length, this keeps the plant producing additional leaves. As with all leafy vegetables, water and soil moisture will help keep your plants producing tender leaves so be sure to monitor your plants every few days.

            As your leafy vegetables grow make sure you constantly monitor them for fungus diseases such as Powdery Mildew, Downy Mildew, or Leaf Spots. Powdery mildew causes the leaves to turn a whitish color. As the disease progresses they will wilt then turn brown. Downeymildew looks similar to powdery mildew but the wilting of the plant is quicker and more evident. Leaf spot diseases cause small circular leaf spots which are dark in color. An application of Green Cure Fungicide (organic) or Daconilshould help to protect your plants from this devastating disease. Be sure to repeat applications as needed every ten to twelve days.

            Cutworms and Cabbage Loopers are another pest we all must deal with anytime we plant leafy vegetables. These pests can devour an entire crop very quickly so make sure you inspect your plants regularly for chew marks or holes in the leaves. When these worms are small they may be difficult to see so make sure to check the folds in the leaves to determine if they may be hiding. As they grow their feeding habits will give them away. Fortunately we have several organic pesticides which give great control on these pests. Dipel, Thuricide, and BTshare the same active ingredient to kill caterpillars on vegetable crops. Unfortunately these products only kill caterpillars and must be re-applied after a rainstorm or heavy watering because the product washes off the plant very easily. The good news is that these products are safe for you and me but deadly to caterpillars.

            As your plants mature and the end of the growing season approaches, many plants become infested with aphids and or whiteflies. Again, check your plants regularly to determine if you see any of these pests. If you only have a few pests then you can wash them off before using the leaves in the kitchen. Those of you that find a lot of pests will need to spray your plants with a product like Safer Soap available at most garden centers. As an alternative, you can make a solution of soap and water (one tablespoon of dish soap mixed with water in a misting bottle) and spray both the underside and top of the leaves to kill these pests. Repeat as necessary. If you find you need to use an insecticide, try Neem Oil, or Liquid Sevin. Follow label directions on the package you purchase.

            Fertilizer is very important to proper plant growth and your vegetables will need fertilizing every three to four weeks. Gently fertilize your plants with an 8-10-10 granular fertilizer using a hand held whirlybird type spreader to insure uniform coverage. Five pounds per one hundred square feet every four weeks is sufficient. Some people like to supplement their fertilizer program with a liquid fertilizer like Miracle Grow or Peters. Mix your liquid fertilizer at one half strength and spray directly on the plants and ground area every two weeks. After fertilization, water your plants to remove any granules that have settled on the plants.    

            I hope you enjoy getting your fall vegetable garden planted as much as you will enjoy reaping the benefits come harvest time. Thank you for your support and remember, without plants we wouldn’t be here!

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