Collard Greens—Another Loose-Leaf Cabbage Cousin
Brassica oleracea. var. acephala
By SCMG Sue Ridgeway
Along with their “uptight” cultivated-cousin cabbage, both collards and kale are “laid-back” loose-leaf members of the mustard or Brassicaceae family. They are thought to more closely resemble their ancient, common ancestor the cole-plant. All modern cole crops are the descendants of a single species, a wild sea cabbage, Brassica oleracea var. oleracea, that evolved along the dry coastlines of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines of Europe. They include popular vegetables found in Sonoma County markets today: mustard, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, kale, cabbage, cauliflower and collard greens.
An easy and rewarding plant to grow, collard greens are both heat- and cold-tolerant, and are available year round in California. They are better suited to Sonoma County’s warm summer climate than other Brassica oleracea, but they are still considered cool-season crops. Given enough water, 4 to 5 hours of full sun and warm evenly moist, nitrogen rich, fertile soils, heat tolerant varieties can be grown in our gardens year round. That said, plants started in the fall, 6 to 8 weeks before the first frost, and harvested throughout temperate winters, produce leaves that are sweeter, less bitter and more nutrient dense. Choose a variety that best fits in your food garden—many grow 2 to 3 feet (with seed stalks reaching 5 feet). Almost any variety will do well in Sonoma County. Add some interest to your garden by growing a variety that produces variegated colors when exposed to frost. Sonoma County Master Gardener Steve Albert recommends the following varieties:
- ‘Champion’ - 60-75 days. Short-stemmed (2 feet) with long, broad, wavy leaves. Mild flavor. Waxy blue green leaves. Bred for frost tolerance, extended harvest and fast growth.
- ‘Vates’- 68 days. Slow to bolt. 32-inch plant. Dark blue-green long, wavy, wide tender leaves.
- ‘Georgia’ – 60-65 days. Tender smooth blue-green leaves. Mild flavor improves with a light frost. Traditional variety in Southern cuisine. Larger habit than ‘Champion.’
As with other cruciferous plants, pests include, but are not limited to, cabbage moth, several species of nematodes and green cabbage loopers. Well-drained soil, with a soil pH of 6.5 to 6.8, will discourage clubroot disease. Soil borne diseases can be avoided and nematode pest buildup can be reduced with crop rotation of your Brassicas. Before cooler weather arrives, use a floating row cover to protect seedlings from insect pests. Some varieties are bred for resistance (e.g., ‘Cascade Glaze’ resists cabbage worms and loopers), or choose variety characteristics that detract (e.g., waxy leaves may reduce cabbage worm infestation).
Collard greens are a staple in traditional Southern cuisine. In fact, they are the official vegetable of South Carolina. Collards, when combined with other green leafy vegetables, are called a “mess-o-greens,” and are cooked down to a liquid referred to as collard liquor, or pot-likker. Pot-likker, combined with onions, spices, ham hocks and turkey (or other salted and fatty meats) is traditionally eaten with black-eyed peas and cornbread. When you’re hankerin’ for a pot-likker an’ cornbread, and you’re fixin’ to add a piece of salt pork to that “mess o’ greens” you can get your fix in Sonoma County. Or, keep your Sonoma County farm-to-table kitchen with Chef Rachel Main’s “Famous Coffee & Brown Sugar Spice Grilled Tri Tip and Smoky Braised Collard Greens and Caramelized Onions,” and pair it with your favorite Sonoma County varietal.