Jane McLeod: Mustard grows fast

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Like many vegetable gardeners, I have a hard time waiting patiently for the soil to warm up for the majority of plantings. Once I read — plant well before the last frost, thrives in cool weather, matures quickly — I’m all over it. Mustard greens exactly fit this description and with the interest in fresh, tasty and artistic salads, there is a renewed interest in this particular edible.

Mustard greens are part of the cabbage plant family and are a staple of Southern and Asian cuisines cherished for their spicy and peppery zing and can be prepared braised, sauteed, stir-fried, lightly steamed or eaten raw.

Mustard green seeds are sown directly into the garden in early spring as soon as you can work the soil. Plant the seeds in a sunny location in fertile, loose and well-drained soil. It also doesn’t compete well, so keep the bed weed-free.

Mustard greens mature quickly germinating within one week and springing up to harvest size within four weeks. Keep the soil moist, and if necessary, thin the seedlings by pulling the whole plant. Like lettuce, this is a “cut-and-come-again” crop that thrives best in cool weather and tastes best before the heat of summer. To eat raw, harvest continually cutting the leaves when they are bite-size and tender while leaving the rest of the plant in the ground.

Although this crop will tolerate a light frost, once the heat hits, the leaves get bigger, tougher and stronger flavored. For cooking purposes, let the mustard greens grow to six to eight inches in size, and when cooked, they pair well and hold up to stronger flavors like bacon, onion, garlic, sesame oil, vinegars, red pepper flakes and soy sauce. Lightly cooked mustard greens are tender but spicy and the longer they cook, the softer their flavor becomes.

Mustard greens also will grow with just occasional watering but the flavor of consistently well-watered greens will not be as hot or biting. Once the heat of summer days arrives or the plant is moisture-stressed, it will bolt and flower and then either leave it for the seeds or as a pretty ornamental or pull up the plant for compost and wait until late summer to try one quick fall crop.

Aside from their culinary contributions, mustard greens are colorful and pretty with many varieties such as Florida Broad Leaf, which has large smooth leaves and a mild flavor; Red Giant, which has a lime green leaf with purple veining and is slow to bolt; Osaka Purple, which has deep purple frilly leaves and a pungent flavor; or Green Wave, which has dark green frilly leaves.

And last but not least, as with other cruciferous vegetables, mustard greens are highly touted for their health benefits and are acclaimed for their vitamin and trace mineral content as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Even though mustard greens have been grown and consumed for some 5,000 years, they aren’t on many garden radars, but they definitely deserve to be.

Jane McLeod is a Master Gardener with the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.

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