May 2012 JSS Advantage Newsletter
Greens to Match Your Market
Greens are quick, easy crops that can be grown year-round to meet the constant demand for them. Greens can become one of the foundation crops on which a market farm depends; with proper scheduling, they will bring in steady income without a lot of fuss.
The word "greens" includes many leafy green plants (and a few that are gold and purple). They are vitamin-rich and important in many cuisines around the world. Many types are best grown in the cool weather of spring and fall, and in the winter hoophouse, but there are others that can be planted and harvested throughout the summer.
The key to success with greens is to match your production to your market, then educate customers to increase sales. Here are three approaches to growing greens, based on local market conditions and some tips for creating your own salad program:
Arugula: The Perfect Introductory Green
If you sell in an area where lettuce is the most exotic green, begin your greens program by offering arugula. This spicy/peppery green is popular throughout the United States and is increasingly available in supermarkets, either alone or as part of a salad mix. The flavor gets stronger as leaves increase in size.
There are two types of arugula, the salad type and the wild type. The salad type has broad leaves, a vigorous growth rate, and is ready for harvest in 21 to 40 days from direct seeding. It can be sold in the baby leaf stage as a salad green or grown to maturity for bunching. The wild type, Sylvetta, typically has narrow, lobed leaves and a slower growth rate, requiring 50 days to harvest. It is more pungent and therefore more suitable for mixing with other greens in a salad mix.
Arugula should be direct seeded, then covered immediately with lightweight row cover to exclude flea beetles which can destroy a crop in a day or two. Cross sell arugula with cherry tomatoes as a summer salad idea, or suggest that it be dressed simply with olive oil, salt, and good-quality Parmesan cheese. Arugula should not be cooked, but it is often wilted by adding it just before serving to pizza, pasta, and omelets.
Step Up Your Greens Offerings
If you sell in an area where arugula is familiar and lettuce is old news, incorporate Asian greens and mache. Asian greens add color, flavor, and weight to salad mix. Combine with arugula, lettuce, chicory, and herbs such as parsley or basil for mesclun mix. Grown to full size, Asian greens work well in stir fry. Cross sell with carrots, cilantro, peppers, and onions as a stir-fry starter.
Mache is a cool weather crop that is very popular in Europe and gaining enthusiasts in the U.S. It thrives in the late fall, winter, and early spring. In mild areas, it may be field grown and harvested throughout the winter. In northern areas it grows well in a hoophouse or caterpillar tunnel. Time plantings to have product available for winter holidays, when it is a desirable salad ingredient. That means planting in late September for harvest beginning at Thanksgiving. Mache is easy to grow, but tough to clean. Rinse harvested rosettes gently to avoid bruising the leaves.
Offer Unique Specialty Greens to High-end Markets
There is no limit to what you can do with greens in high-end and ethnic markets. But creativity is key. Create a unique salad mix by using specialty greens that change with the seasons. Incorporate edible flowers such as pea blossoms, violets, borage, calendula, bachelor's button, and nasturtium. Assemble mixed greens bunches for sautés, including any of the Asian greens, mustards, kale, Swiss chard, and mini broccoli.
Greens can be marketed at farmers markets and CSAs, especially if you provide recipes and nutritional information. Asian and Southern restaurants may be good channels for greens, as are supermarkets and wholesalers.
Many greens are brassicas and will benefit from a lightweight row cover to protect them from flea beetles and other typical spring brassica pests. Most do best in the cool weather of spring and fall, but some are more heat-tolerant: Yukina Savoy, which has large, crinkled leaves; Mei Qing Choi, a mini, green-stem Pac Choi; and Joi Choi, a heavy, white-stem Pac Choi. Mustard greens in general will do better in summer than the Asian greens.
In addition, several other species of greens are heat-tolerant and good for spring and summer planting. Red Leaf Vegetable Amaranth is a Caribbean specialty green, often used in soups. Malabar Spinach is a climbing vine with tender leaves that are a summer substitute for spinach. Magenta Spreen is a Chenopodium, similar to Lamb's Quarter in flavor and appearance. Purslane, which has succulent leaves, is popular in Latin American cuisine and is available in golden and red varieties.
Create Customer Loyalty with Custom Salad mixes
Just as greens can become a foundation crop for a farm, so can salad mix. Customers eat salads year-round, so it makes sense to devote some effort to your own salad program. By experimenting with varieties, scheduling, and production methods, you will be able to offer salad mix over a long season.
If you are just beginning, you can minimize the learning curve by planting Johnny's salad mix blends, available as all-lettuce mixes and all-greens mixes. Both can be harvested in 3-6 weeks. However, lettuce takes about a week longer than greens, so plant a lettuce mix first and then 5-7 days later, plant a greens mix. You should also cover the greens mix with lightweight row cover to exclude flea beetles. Both lettuce and greens mixes will be ready at the same time and you can combine them after you harvest and wash them.
By using a premixed blend, you can get a feel for the production considerations. Keep good notes: amount of seed planted, spacing, planting and harvest dates, amount harvested. That information will help you make adjustments next time you plant. You may want to direct seed and harvest by hand at first, but if you find a strong market for your salad mix, consider investing in specialized tools: Johnny's Tilther makes fine seedbeds for direct seeding small seeds of lettuce and greens, and a pinpoint seeder is useful for evenly spacing seeds in dense plantings. For harvesting salad mix, consider a serrated greens knife for small plantings or Johnny's Greens Harvesters for larger plantings.
Once you have the basic salad mix mastered, you may want to switch to choosing your own varieties and growing them individually, then mixing them together postharvest into a pleasing combination. The advantage to designing your own mixes is that you can accommodate customer preference and make seasonal adjustments. Also, you can save money by purchasing individual varieties.
A profitable salad mix will have several colors and shapes of lettuces for a mild flavor; baby greens for intense color, stronger flavor, and greater weight and loft; and some "signature" additions such as tender baby herbs and edible flowers. Besides being pretty, a salad mix should have a good "mouth feel," which means not too many stems or hard to swallow. And, of course, flavor should be interesting but not overpowering. Making your own salad mix is a creative endeavor!
Your final consideration in growing salad mix must be washing and postharvest handling. Always use safe, potable water for washing all produce. Customers are accustomed to supermarket mixes that are triple-washed and ready-to-eat, so you may need to remind them to wash salad mix again before eating. Leaves should be spun dried gently to prevent bruising them, and salad mix should be kept refrigerated at 41˚F to as low as 33˚F for food safety and the longest storage life.