Collard greens (brassica oleracea) are a favorite southern cooking green. You don’t have to live in the southern states to grow collards, though. Greens can be grown in the spring and summer, but autumn is really the best time for growing collard greens because the cool weather enhances their taste.
The methods for growing collards depend on how you plan to use them. Even though the traditional use for collards is as a cooking green, when you pick young leaves, they make an excellent salad green.
When picked after a frost they will taste sweet and won’t have the bitterness of greens harvested in warm weather. A non-heading type of cabbage, that’s what collard greens are basically.
Their requirements for good growth are the same. All cabbage family members prefer a rich, moist loamy soil. They will grow fine in most heavy clay soils if you amend with plenty of compost.
Collards are heavy nitrogen feeders and will need to be fertilized several times during the season. All brassicas need to be watered during dry periods. They will not tolerate being too dry so plan on giving your greens a good deep watering once a week if you don’t have at least an inch of rain.
Note to Northern gardeners: If you live in a climate that is just too harsh to grow plants over the winter, collard seeds can easily be sown in the early spring and harvested before hot weather sets in.
Many northern gardeners are more accustomed to growing kale which is a closely related plant. The taste of the two plants is virtually identical and their requirements are the same.
So if you’ve grown kale before, grow your collards the same way leaving more space between the plants as collard plants grow much larger than kale.
Starting Your Collard Greens
You can sometimes find collard sets at garden centers this time of year but the seeds germinate in about a week, so starting collards from seeds is a more economical choice. Sow the seeds thickly and thin them to six inches apart when the plants have two sets of true leaves.
Continue to thin the plants as they grow until the plants are 18 inches to 2 feet apart. Yes, you can eat the thinned plants in salads or in a stir-fry.
You can sow collard green seeds directly in the garden but if the weather is wet, the seedlings will be prone to damp-off, which is a fungal disease that causes seedlings to wither away at the soil line.
If this has been a problem in your garden, you can start the seeds in a flat in a cool room indoors, and then transplant them outdoors when they are about two inches tall.
Pest Control for Collard Greens
Compared to heading cabbages, collards are typically hardier. However, collard greens face a number of similar pest issues as heading cabbages. Flea beetles would emerge in the warm days during late September and early October. Young seedlings can easily be ravaged by these pests.
See if there are plenty of scaled-down shotgun holes on your plants. These minuscule black-colored beetles love creating such holes. They are predominantly damaging to seedlings, but generally won’t be an issue as far as older plants are concerned.
Another pest you may have to contend with especially in warmer weather is cabbage loopers, also known as inchworms. These tiny caterpillars can devastate your brassicas if the infestation is severe.
If you see the worms or their damage on your plants, you’ll need to go on a search and destroy mission. Hand picking is the best method to eradicate these little worms.
Snails and slugs tend to enjoy ruining overwintering plants. When the weather is wet and cool, inspect your plants to see if there are any big ragged holes in them. If you find some, chances are, those mollusks are the culprits!
When it comes to keeping slugs and snails under control, one solid method often employed by gardeners is by placing traps around the plants in the form of small containers of beer. I prefer using a margarine container with about a couple of inches of beer for trapping those pesky slugs.
To prevent wild animals and your pets from messing around with the beer, I suggest you place the lid back on and then have the top portion punched with several holes. It makes sense to do so because obviously come nighttime, you wouldn’t want a bunch of drunken rodents, raccoons, and the like inflicting havoc on your garden.
Don’t want to use beer? A good alternative is to employ an iron phosphate fortified slug bait. Not only is this type of bait highly potent, it’s also wildlife-friendly.
Harvesting Your Collards
Collard greens will reach full maturity from seed in about 80 days, but you can begin harvesting the leaves in about three weeks, and whole young plants can be harvested at about 40 days growth.
Collards are perfect for a “come and cut again” treatment. Harvest the outer leaves whenever you want a few leaves for a salad or stir-fry, making sure to leave the central bud intact. You can pick plenty of tender leaves all season long if you grow collards this way.
The older leaves are tough and fibrous and will have to have the central stems removed before they are edible. When harvesting whole mature plants, you may want to discard the outermost leaves.
If you want to pick a “mess of greens” (that means a lot) for your traditional New Year’s black eyed pea and greens dinner, you can either let a couple of plants mature to full size, or you can harvest a few younger plants and freeze them for future use.
If you decide to let your collard plants grow to full size, they will get really huge when the days start getting longer in late winter and early spring. The popular variety “Georgia” will start to grow a tall central stalk that may grow to 4-6 feet tall in the spring.
If you don’t harvest the plants, they will begin to produce the typical yellow cabbage flowers. Although they look interesting at this stage, the taste of the leaves will start to become bitter, so it’s really better to harvest the plants well before they start blooming. If allowed to bloom collards will reseed themselves and could become weeds.
Collard Greens Are Nutritious and Easy To Grow
Many people are starting gardens particularly in tough economic times to save money, but the greatest benefit is being able to harvest fresh healthy food whenever you need it. Growing collard greens is relatively easy even for the beginning gardener, and just a few plants will provide you with nutritious greens for cooking or salads for many months.