The heat of summer causes many garden greens to bolt and flower right around June here in northeast Iowa, and though spring salads of lettuce, spinach, arugula, and mustard aren’t quite in season anymore, there are plenty of heat-tolerant (or heat-loving) leaves to enjoy this time of the year.
Collards & Kale (Brassica oleracea) - It is true these brassicas taste sweeter after a frost but the leaves are still tasty during the summer months. Their culinary range reaches from the Southern U.S. to Scotland and Scandinavia, and their preparation is diverse: stir-fried, braised, raw, sauteed, juiced, or (as preferred by many younger kids) baked into chips.
Beets & Swiss Chard (Beta vulgaris) - Swiss chard tends to receive more attention as a green with its large leaves and colorful stems, but I prefer the more tender (and beet-flavored) beet greens for most applications, particularly raw in salads. That they can be cut over and over again only to regrow several new leaves is of great benefit to gardeners trying to make the most of a small space.
Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) - Having grown amaranth for only a few years, it's already hard for me to imagine a garden without it now. Though there are some real beauties in this list, nothing is as striking as the 8’ tall red amaranth that self-seeds in our display gardens. Popular in many Asian cuisines, the leaves are best when cooked lightly (as in a stir-fry). Cooked red amaranth will dye your entire dish bright pink, so I grow plenty of green amaranth as well for more subdued meals.
Orach (Atriplex hortensis) - Quite possibly my favorite garden plant in 2012, orach comes in a variety of colors (purple, salmon, chartreuse, green) and bolts much later than lettuce or spinach; our orach self-seeded prolifically last fall and we’re still enjoying this year’s plants mid-July. Young leaves are a great lettuce substitute for summer salads.
Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) - Eating sweet potato leaves is pretty new to me, but having noticed them at farmer’s markets recently I was tempted to try some. They’re quite good raw (deer think so too - they moved right to sweet potatoes after they had eaten all the chard in our garden), but superb sauteed with garlic and ginger.
Malabar Spinach (Basella rubra) - Malabar spinach is not closely related to the spinach that most gardeners are familiar with, but I’d highly recommend it be grown in every backyard at least once. It is a vigorous and succulent vine that wraps itself tightly around bamboo trellises here at the farm, and it looks great from the day it is planted to the day it is removed. The leaves are quite juicy when eaten raw, and they are cooked in diverse culinary cultures to thicken soups and stews.
Garden Weeds (various species) - Though you may not be actively cultivating them (in fact, you may be actively trying to remove them), there are several common garden weeds that warrant a taste, particularly if you’re pulling them out of the ground anyway. Purslane seems to be especially prolific this year; given the choice between dandelions and any other green, the ducks here at the farm will always choose dandelions. But if purslane seems a bit too slimy, or if you’re not inclined to follow the palate of ducks, a chickweed salad might make you a bit more appreciative of these garden nuisances.
An added benefit of growing these summer greens in your garden is that they look healthy even when the heat is on - particularly Malabar spinach and sweet potato vines, which aren’t often bugged by insects.
If your salads seem to be getting smaller as summer progresses, or if you’re looking to add color, texture, and flavor to next year’s dishes, consider sourcing seeds of the above varieties for next year’s garden through our store or our online seed exchange.