One of the easiest ways to waste food, time, and energy in the garden is by not taking full advantage of your plants potential! For example, why harvest an entire head of lettuce, bok choy, or kale at once, when instead you could keep the plant around to feed you for several more weeks – or maybe even months to come? Sure, there are certainly times when removing an entire plant is appropriate, which we’ll discuss more to follow. However, we prefer to harvest our greens a little differently, using the “Cut and Come Again” method!
Let me show you how we harvest our leafy greens using the cut and come again method. This method of perpetual harvesting promotes new growth, and vastly extends the time the plant gets to live in our garden – and feed us! I will also provide some tips on how to prolong your leafy green season and slow down bolting, and share our favorite varieties of greens to grow! A video demonstration of the cut and come again harvest method is included too.
Leafy greens are hands-down our favorite thing to grow. Kale, swiss chard, mustard greens, bok choy, lettuce, arugula, and more! As plants, they’re very low-maintenance and easy to grow compared to many others. As food, they are SO damn good for you, overflowing with nutrients and antioxidants. One of the best parts is that there are seemingly endless options of different types and varieties of greens to try – which is not only fun, but also makes it easy to find ones that work well in your climate. I hope you’ll feel as stoked about growing greens as I am by the time you finish this article!
The Benefits of Cut and Come Again Harvesting
So, why should I harvest my leafy greens this way, you ask?
The better question is: Why not? There are very few scenarios where harvesting an entire head of lettuce, bok choy, or other leafy green is preferable to practicing cut-and-come-again, in my humble opinion at least. A farmer may need to cut away the entire plant to sell them at market. Maybe a particular variety of green isn’t suitable for cut-and-come-again, such as tighter heads of lettuce. Or, perhaps it is the end of the growing season, the plants are starting to look ragged and about to bolt, or you need to clear the space. Sure, then harvest the entire thing! Otherwise…
I highly suggest cut and come again harvesting, for following five reasons:
- You get the most bang for your buck by harvesting all season long! By using the cut and come again method, we have had kale and swiss chard plants live for over a year – feeding us fresh tasty leaves every single week! We’ve even had romaine lettuce survive for over 6 months with perpetual harvesting before getting too bitter or tough to enjoy. Depending on your climate, not everyone will be able to grow leafy greens for quite as long as we do – but we’ll talk about a few ways to extend your greens season below!
- Enjoy smaller amounts of the greens on an as-needed basis. A few leaves of kale, a handful of arugula… By harvesting a little at a time, it is far less fuss than storing and refrigerating entire heads or many plants at once.
- Similarly, picking leaves as you need them ensures they’re more fresh! An entire head of collard greens may go limp or spoil before you eat it all.
- By routinely cutting away a few leaves from each plant, it encourages rapid new growth! Continually cycling through the leaves means you’re always promoting fresh tender vegetation. This is especially evident when it comes to young seedlings. Wait until small leafy green seedlings have at least 5-7 leaves, then gently pull off the 2-3 oldest, lowest leaves. That way, they can redirect their energy elsewhere. You’ll be astonished at how quickly they take off afterwards!
- Finally, using the cut and come again method means less work and maintenance in the garden. I don’t know about you, but I would rather let plants live as long as possible in one spot (as long as they’re still productive and healthy!) than constantly starting more seed or buying more seedlings, planting them, and starting the whole cycle over again.
How to Harvest Greens with Cut and Come Again
To harvest using the cut and come again method, it is really just as easy as cutting, and coming again later! Well, maybe not quite that simple, but dang close.
Here are some pointers:
- Harvest a few of the outermost, oldest, lowest leaves from the plant only.
- You can gently pull or tear the leaves away, but be very careful not to tug on the entire plant, break the main stem, or uproot it all! Support the main plant with one hand while you harvest with the other. Or, be safe and use a knife or trimming shears to cut the leaves away.
- Cut (or gently tear) the leaf you’re removing all the way down to the base of the plant, where it is attached to the main stem. If you leave a little nub behind, it may still try to draw energy from the plant. Or, run the risk of harboring disease.
- Harvest as many leaves as you need at the time, but always leave at least a handful of leaves behind! The plant needs those to photosynthesize and continue to grow! As aI rule of thumb, I never harvest more than half of the leaves available.
- We typically harvest from our leafy greens once per week, during our big weekend harvests. However, you could harvest more or less frequently as needed, as long as you’re leaving behind enough to regrow.
- Don’t cut from the center top portion of the plant. That is where all the new growth is coming from, called the terminal bud. If it is removed, the plant will stop producing new leaves. Or, it may send off side shoots of smaller, less desirable leaves.
What Types of Greens Can I “Cut and Come Again” Harvest?
You can apply this harvesting technique to more than you probably ever imagined! As you’ve probably already gleaned, the cut and come again method can be (and should be!) used for classic leafy greens like kale. We continually harvest this way from our swiss chard, mustard greens, bok choy, collard greens, lettuce, arugula, and the many types of Asian greens we love to grow as well.
Additionally, cut and come again can be used for less traditional “leafy greens” – such as beet greens, turnip greens, daikon radish greens, and even cauliflower and broccoli leaves! Yes, those are ALL edible. There are many types of vegetables that aren’t primarily grown for their greens, but that doesn’t mean their greens aren’t a worthy crop too! Beet greens are especially delicious. To harvest them, follow the exact same instructions as above. Cut away just a few leaves at a time from where they meet the soil or the beet itself, and always leave more than half behind! The greens will regenerate, and the beet will continue to happily grow.
The one caveat here is that certain varieties of the greens mentioned above will be more or less suited for cut-and-come again. Bok choy is the perfect example. Baby bok choy forms small, tight heads, intended to be harvested early and young. It would be fairly difficult to pull off the outermost leaves to harvest, and not very worthwhile. On the other hand, other types of bok choy grow large thick stalks and leaves in a much looser, open head – prime for the picking! Our favorite bok choy is Joi Choi, for that very reason. In general, we always give preference to varieties of greens that respond well to cut-and-come again.
Our Favorite Leafy Green Varieties
Every year, we love to experiment and grow new types of leafy greens in the garden. Hello, my name is Deanna, and I am a seed-shopping addict. Yet there are those few tried-and-true, never-let-ya-down, stellar varieties that we grow year after year.
If you need some ideas of where to source seeds, check out this article: “12 Places to Buy Organic, Heirloom, & Non-GMO Garden Seeds”.
How to Extend the Life of Leafy Greens & Slow Bolting
Perpetual harvesting with the cut and come again method sounds great in theory, but will only work if your leafy greens actually stick around to be harvested from! Greens can be a bit finicky if they’re unhappy. If their growing conditions aren’t to their liking, they may try to bolt on you.
When a plant “bolts”, it means it is starting to go to flower, and then form its seed. Their final hoo-rah. At that time, the plant is on its way out – and the greens can become more tough and bitter. We do sometimes continue to harvest off of bolting plants. Also, we like to leave some to flower for the bees to enjoy!
So, here are a few tips to extend your leafy greens season:
1) Grow in the Right Season
Some leafy greens may be able to tolerate warmer weather, but in general, most leafy greens prefer a cooler growing season! For many of you, this means growing leafy greens in the spring or fall. If you’re lucky enough to live in a climate that doesn’t have crazy hot summers or freezing winters, you should be able to grow some greens all year long – like we do! Yet even if you do have extreme temperatures, there are ways to keep on growing through it. Continue reading below to see how.
If you aren’t sure when to start or grow leafy greens, refer to your handy Homestead and Chill garden planning toolkit. It has planting calendars for every growing zone! (It is sent via email. Gmail users, check your “promotions” inbox!)
2) Choose Hardy Varieties
For you gardeners growing leafy greens in the spring months, look for heat-tolerant and slow-bolting varieties. This is particularly true if your weather rapidly heats up from spring to summer. This will help your greens last as long as possible! Some plant descriptions will explicitly state this. Others we have discovered through time, trial, and error. We’ve found many lettuces and Asian greens to be only mildly bolt-tolerant, collard greens to be the most heat-tolerant of them all, and kale and swiss chard somewhere in between.
On the other hand, if you are planting a fall/winter session of leafy greens, and live in an area prone to cold snaps, choose cold-hardy varieties that can handle some frost. For example, Lacinato, Red Russian, and White Russian kale types can all withstand frost and even some snow. Did you know kale actually gets sweeter after a frost?
We grow most of our greens in the virtually frost-free winter months here. They’re planted out as seedlings in late September, and if we’re lucky, some will grow straight through until the following spring into summer! Overall, our climate is pretty temperate, but we do get occasional odd heat spikes over 80 degrees in the winter! Thus, we seek out slow-bolters that can hopefully handle that.
3) Provide Protection
If you live in a place where it rapidly shifts from a nice mild spring to a blazing hot summer, consider planting your leafy greens in a location that gets partial shade. Protection from the hottest late afternoon sun is particularly helpful to slow bolting. I don’t suggest planting them in complete shade however! Greens, like most garden vegetables, are going to be most happy if they receive at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. The key is to get it juuuuust right. Get Goldilocks with it.
Don’t have a shady spot in your garden? Another way to provide shade is using shade cloth and row covers. While you do need to pick up a few extra materials to do this, the use of shade cloth may be preferable anyways – because you can control the shade! Meaning, you can drape the greens on extra hot days (or weeks), but allow them to be free to soak up the sun at other times. Shade cloth can be supported over plants with hoops or other structures. It can also be laid directly on top of plants, as long as it doesn’t smash them.
Hoops or row covers can also be used with material that is designed to protect plants from frost (like this frost blanket), to help you extend the season into the winter time. Additionally, look into cold frames as a means to garden in the winter!
4) Use Good Irrigation Practices
Heat isn’t the only thing that leads to bolting or unhappy leafy greens. Keep your greens well- irrigated to reduce stress. That doesn’t mean drown them though! The goal is to provide even, consistent, deep water on a routine basis. Allow the soil to dry out ever-so-slightly between watering so the roots get a chance to breathe.
Other ways to reduce stress and increase drought tolerance is to routinely water plants with compost tea and aloe vera solutions! We do both about once every month or two. If you need more tips about garden irrigation, you may enjoy this article: “Garden Irrigation Solutions: DIY, Efficient, & Toxin-Free Watering Options”
5) Get Insurance
Time to call Geico! Just kidding. We love our AAA. But that is not the kind of insurance I am talking about. What I mean is: plant extra! If you have the space for it, plant many of each type of leafy green you’re hoping to have a long, perpetual harvest from. Why? Well, it will that give you more greens to harvest. Furthermore, it increases your odds of getting some really long-lasting plants! For example, we’ve had some kale plants in a plot decide to bolt on us within a few months. Meanwhile, others of the same variety in that same plot decided to happily grow without bolting for nearly a year!
So… We’ve talked about how to extend your greens growing season, and how to harvest them. What about after harvest?
Storing Greens After Harvest
You may not love it, and I hate to say it… but the best way to keep leafy greens fresh and crisp in the refrigerator is stored in a sealed plastic bag with a little splash of water inside. Or, maybe another sealed non-porous container like a giant tupperware.
We have tried to use mesh reusable produce bags to store greens, and it didn’t work nearly as well. If I kept the mesh bags and greens damp, the greens stayed fairly crisp for a day or two. They rapidly went limp thereafter. If you want to harvest and use little bits at a time, that could work okay for you! On the other hand, a sealed plastic bag will keep them completely spry and crispy for over a week. I fully realize this isn’t ideal! But we do reuse the same plastic produce bags or ziplock over and over and over. If you have other suggestions that are just as effective, please do share!
The key is to harvest your leafy greens when they’re firm in the garden. Meaning, harvest them in the morning, or perhaps in the evening. Avoid harvesting greens in the middle of the hot afternoon when they’re already limp! Particularly if you want them to hold up in storage. I collect harvested greens in a basket, and try to keep them in the shade while doing so. Then I get them inside and into the fridge as quickly as possible thereafter. When using a standard produce bag, I stuff them full, drizzle in a little water, and then clip them shut with clothes pins.
We generally harvest what we can consume fresh in a week, adding greens to sautéed veggies, soups, lentils, quinoa, frittata, or salads for every lunch and dinner. If we have more than we can use fresh, one of our favorite ways to preserve greens is to make a fermented sauerkraut with them! Bok choy and mustards are especially tasty as kraut. Alternately, we also love to make big batches of garden veggie soup to freeze for months to come! You can also use our besto pesto recipe to freeze, and replace the basil with kale and/or arugula. Greens are also excellent in smoothies or juiced, and can be used fresh or frozen there.
And that is how you prolong your leafy green season!
What do you think? Did you learn something new? If you use some of these pointers in your own garden, you’ll be munching on nutritious leafy greens for many months to come! It may take you a couple of seasons to figure out the best types, timing, and tricks apply to your garden, but you’ll get there! In the meantime, #eatyourgreens, and spread the love by sharing this post!