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Spicy Greens for Your Garden

By Tracy Bedford, Colorado Master GardenerSM, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Denver County

In case you didn't know, it's the year of mesclun.

So proclaims the National Garden Bureau. Mesclun, we learn, is a mix of young plant leaves that include some not-so-run-of-the-mill greens.

In addition to a lettuce base, spicy greens such as arugula, cress and Japanese mustards add salad excitement to what can otherwise be ho-hum dining.

Spicy salad greens are leafy plants with both a distinct spiciness or assertive flavor and the delicate tenderness to be eaten raw in salads. Many are easy to grow -- some too easy -- often ending up in the weed category. With a short time to harvest, between 21 and 60 days, these greens can offer a summer of tasty salads. Don't neglect to plant a mid-to-late summer planting of the cool weather types for fall harvest.

Arugula is the spicy green enjoying the most popularity today. It's also known as rocket. High in vitamins, this plant has been cultivated in North America for more than 300 years. It's attractive lobed, dark green leaves offer a unique nutty flavor. This plant likes cold weather so, for best results, plant early in spring and late in the summer. For summer harvest, plant in the shade or under floating row covers where it's cooler. Arugula turns bitter in the heat of summer.

Cress is a more challenging plant to grow in Colorado's intense sun. It's ready to harvest in as little as 14 days after spring planting. Part day shade is best particularly when weather turns warm. Both curly cress, also known as peppergrass, and broadleaf cress thrive in ordinary garden soil and provide for repeat harvests before going to seed.

For fiery greens that are a culinary delight, grow Japanese mustards. Varieties include `Osaka Purple,' `Greenwave' and `Red Giant' among others. `Red Giant' is reported to have a Dijon mustard taste. Leaves are ready for harvest when four inches long, usually four to six weeks after sowing. They can withstand some summer heat if planted in partial shade. Do go slow here as these are considered some of the spiciest of greens.

Another savory, easy-to-grow plant in Colorado is vigorous annual nasturtium. Better known for its sunset hued flowers, both flowers and leaves are edible. Nasturtiums grow like crazy in hot weather and the young leaves provide the best peppery bite. Another pesky flower -- or faithful friend, depending on your outlook -- is johnny jump ups. Only their flowers are edible and they add wonderful color to salads.

Milder mibuna and mizuna offer a starting point for those wanting to take a go-slow approach to savory salads. Quick to harvest, pick leaves on an as-needed basis and expect one plant to provide for many salads.

For the lettuce base, butterhead, looseleaf and romaine types grow well in Colorado. Crisphead lettuce rarely sets a hard head according to many years of vegetable demonstration trial results at Colorado State University. Of the butterhead types, `Ermosa,' with smooth, light green leaves, `Dapple,' a beautiful red oak leaf and `Pirat,' with a red tinge to its leaves, have all proven to be Colorado adapted. Looseleaf varieties that do well here are `Green Ice' and `Red Sails.' For romaine, try `Winter Density.'

The no-fuss way to grow these delicacies is to plant seeds early in a big flower planter. Instead of delaying planting until you get time to prepare your garden, you can prepare the planter the previous fall and, early in the spring, scatter seeds in a minute. Grow seeds in a potting soil high in organic material and well supplied with nutrients. Provide consistent moisture during growth. When the seedlings are large enough to transplant to a vegetable bed, divert a few leaves for your salad table. Try this and you will be rewarded with a lovely early season flower planter, a thriving vegetable bed and a full salad bowl.

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010