DBF’s Top 5 Grows: #2 COLLARD GREENS

Man, do I love a hearty green.

See, I grew up on foraged greens (and cultivated ones too, but it’s the rustic, ‘ground to table’ things that stick out the most to me from my youth.) Coming from a small town with very meager means, we were ALL about living off the land as much as possible. Dandelion greens with vinegar (or spinach with vinegar) was a staple in my Gramma Severance’s house. Store bought veggies during spring summer or fall? What the heck are THOSE?

We also pickled and jammed and made our own butter and lots of other homestead-y stuff, that when you are a kid, you just dismiss as something that every family does. Even in the 70’s and 80’s though, I learned (sometimes the hard way) that my family was unique in a lot of ways.

It’s a time I look back and recall just how special it was. How different it was from the time we live in now.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a HUGE techie nerd. I LOVE modernizations. But, I yearn for bits of that simple life. So much so, that hubs and I now have what we have… a life that from the outside looks sweet and idyllic, but in reality is achieved through much hard work (at the life not at a job) as well as compromises and commitment.

Why is collards our #2? Two reasons really:

  1. Hands down it is the best side dish my husband makes and I CRAVE it as soon as the temperatures go up and the grill lives out from under it’s cover. (Smokey BBQ’d spare ribs with goat cheese grits and his collards? Near perfect meal, people.)
  2. It is HEARTY. HAR-TEEEEE. And labeled a hearty green for a reason… this sucker GROWS and it keeps growing (with care and feeding) the entire season… it KEEPS longer than most greens (even kale)… it PRESERVES well… blanching or not, fully cooked and seasoned or not, we almost always have this in our freezer at our disposal…and bonus: it it BUILT for intense flavor.

While most people just see collards as one type of plant, there are actually SO many varieties. The history of collards is very interesting too, as across the globe, what is categorized as a ‘collard’ can range drastically.

Here is the Wiki on collards if you would like to learn more about it’s origins and varieties.

While there are several theories on it’s origin here in the U.S., most prevalent is that collards were brought to America on ships by enslaved Africans. I note this because of two things: identity and culture. It is important to understand how and where our foods came to us. We all should know these things…. so we don’t take them for granted and can see them in their true light. The food we consume often has a rich and significant history. Learn it! Understanding the collard green’s importance during slavery and it’s cultural importance to African American culture is to understand the power of the food and how it can sustain, uplift, pay homage and honor ones family, history and heritage. Food is POWERFUL, but only if we take the time to understand these things.

 During slavery, collards were one of the most common plants grown in kitchen gardens and were used to supplement the rations provided by plantation owners. Greens were widely used because the plants could last through the winter weather and could withstand the heat of a southern summer even more so than spinach or lettuce. (from the above linked Wiki)

Just tromping into a store and grabbing something to eat shouldn’t be so dissociative. Convenience has pulled us away from the importance of the sources (historical and geographical) of our food. If you consume it, you should understand it… at least that is something our household believes in.

There is so much to know and understand about collards… once you start, you kind of go down this amazing rabbit hole of knowledge of it’s impact and importance on African American identity and how it is celebrated, commemorated and utilized throughout this country’s history. Thelonious Monk sported a collard green leaf in his lapel. The first dinner of President Barack Obama had collard greens on the menu. New Year’s Greens and Peas (I love this blog post explaining the tradition HERE…) There are annual festivals to collards and currently, a big push to maintain and build back some of the varieties that are on the verge of disappearing (through the Heirloom Collard Project.)

The word collard comes from the medieval term ‘colewort’ which referred to non-heading brassica crops. In fact, if you’ve grown it before, sometimes collard seedlings so closely resemble cabbage seedlings that without labelling you most likely would get them confused. The thick, broad leaves very closely resemble the outer layer leaves of cabbage in most common American varieties. Other brassicas (like cauliflower and broccoli) in early stages look near identical!

Nutritionally, collards are amazing:

Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
Energy137 kJ (33 kcal)
Carbohydrates5.6 g
Sugars0.4 g
Dietary fiber4 g
Protein2.7 g
Vitamin A equiv.beta-Carotenelutein zeaxanthin48%380 μg42%4513 μg6197 μg
Thiamine (B1)3%0.04 mg
Riboflavin (B2)9%0.11 mg
Niacin (B3)4%0.58 mg
Pantothenic acid (B5)4%0.22 mg
Vitamin B610%0.13 mg
Folate (B9)4%16 μg
Vitamin C22%18 mg
Vitamin E6%0.9 mg
Vitamin K388%407 μg
Calcium14%141 mg
Iron9%1.13 mg
Magnesium6%21 mg
Manganese24%0.51 mg
Phosphorus5%32 mg
Potassium2%117 mg
Sodium1%15 mg
Zinc2%0.23 mg
Other constituentsQuantity
Water90.2 g
Full Link to USDA Database entry
Unitsμg = micrograms • mg = milligramsIU = International units
Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for adults. 
Source: USDA FoodData Central

Raw collard greens are 90% water, 6% carbohydrates, 3% protein, and contain negligible fat (table). Like kale, collard greens contain substantial amounts of vitamin K (388% of the Daily Value, DV) in a 100-gram (3.5 oz) serving. Collard greens are rich sources (20% or more of DV) of vitamin Avitamin C, and manganese, and moderate sources of calcium and vitamin B6.

Growing them is quite simple, however if you live in an area with any sort of rodentia (from mouse to chipper to groundhog) or deer, protect it. The tender early leaves are highly sought after and one well placed CHOMP! can end your seedling’s life.

There are several insect pest challenges as well, nematodes (soil based pests) are MAJOR pains but our biggest challenge is aphids and cabbage worms. Inspecting your plants daily for pest damage is critical to make sure you catch something before it gets out of hand. Cabbage worms can take down a whole plant while you are gone on vacation… pick em. Aphids are also notorious breeders and one or two eggs can quickly evolve into an entire aphid colony feeding on your plants! The worst thing about these two pests is that they can jump to other crops (or migrate from other crops) so again, inspecting your plants daily is a MUST when you grown your own food.

I find it best to start these seeds indoors in late Feb or March (for my growing zone 5b) and even earlier for the warmer zones… collards will grow throughout the summer months, but they thrive (and have the most growth) when it is cooler. Planting the tiny seeds 1/4 inch down , keeping moist and giving them lots of light are basics… feeding these little seedlings once their second set of leaves sprout with an early plant fertilizer from the bottom helps root development and sturdiness of stem.

Transplanting along with your other cool weather plants is another reason why this crop is great… it becomes one of the first crops you harvest, and the longer it is in the ground.. the more it grows and produces for you! In warmer climates it is year round, but up here, we only grow it from April to when we put the beds to sleep for the winter. Still… 7-8 months of produce is AMAZING (especially when you realize how easy it is to preserve, store and freeze to enjoy it in the depths of winter!)

What is important to remember about collards is that you HAVE to give them room. Those seedlings look tiny, and the leaves small, but resist the urge to cram in a bunch with intensive plantings (or an aggressive square foot mentality.) These plants get HUGE and the leaves are massive! 12 inches on all sides at a MINIMUM might seem like you have only a few plants, but the air flow and light hitting ALL leaves to boost it’s growth means you will get great yield per plant AND grow a plant healthy enough to last the entire growing season into the Fall.

Our household recipe is my husbands… with lots of crisped bacon (or lardon), some smokey ham, brown sugar, red pepper and vinegar (sometimes he uses balsamic, sometimes apple cider vinegar…) and I can’t tell you how much I look forward to the LEFTOVERS. Something about well prepared southern greens… they just are even better the next day (and the next….) That is why preparing a big harvest and then portioning and freezing is so amazing. You can thaw and reheat and they taste INCREDIBLE… silky, smokey and full of flavor.

Another beautiful thing about these greens is that they take TIME to cook. Traditional Southern Greens take hours… slow and low… to build that flavor. With all that time, the memories are made… from the smells that take over the house, to the hands that help chop and prep the greens… to the stories and family history (and secret ingredients!) This style of cooking is not celebrated much anymore. It is one reason I beg my husband to make this. This is one of OUR family’s secret recipes… this is part of our history (while paying homage to the significance of the crop through tending to our own plants, harvesting and cooking for our own sustenance.) I beg to help stir and check on it as it simmers away… I hover as my husband seasons and adjusts the blend to get the ‘liquor’ right… It takes time, and with that time, you are with family and enjoying togetherness.

The recipe will come once we are closer to harvest, but if you didn’t start your seeds… I am sure you can find some starts at the local garden center (or Lowes, etc…)

Give them a try in your garden… trust me, it will quickly become something that is on your annual plan!


Happy growing!


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