Leafy greens are rich in nutrients and excellent for our health. We all know that we should eat our greens. But most people are not fully aware of the wealth of green leafy plants that we can eat.
The range of edible leafy greens is far broader than most people imagine, and there are health benefits to expanding the range of plants that you grow for this purpose, in order to add variety to your homegrown diet.
Types of Edible Leafy Greens
Most people are familiar with the common annual and biennial edible leafy greens grown in vegetable gardens.
But for a more sustainable diet, and for less work and effort on your part, permaculture practitioners will often embrace more unusual edible leafy greens – especially those that are perennial and will remain in the garden over a number of years.
Annual & Biennial Edible Leafy Greens
Familiar edible leafy greens in a vegetable garden commonly include:
- Lettuces (Lactuca sativa)
- Spinach (Spinacea oleracea)
- Chards (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris)
- & Brassica (cabbage family) crops including cabbages, collards, kale, turnip greens, rocket, mizuna, mibuna, mustards etc….
In addition to these options, those making their first forays into foraging also often discover a range of annual wild plants or ‘weeds’ that are also excellent sources of edible leafy greens.
Many common annual weeds are actually also very useful and delicious edible leafy greens. Some of my favourites include chickweed (Stellaria media), fat hen (Chenopodium album), hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), and young cleavers (Galium aparine)… to name just a few of the wild edible greens I harvest in my area.
We can automatically expand our horizons when it comes to edible leafy greens by foraging for wild species that grow in and around our gardens.
Perennial Edible Leafy Greens
In order to increase the wealth of our diets, however, and also to grow in more sustainable and less labour-intensive ways, we can also embrace many more options beyond these most common edible leafy greens that are most commonly grown in gardens.
- Trees & shrubs with edible leaves.
- Brassica-like edible leafy greens.
- Spinach-like edible leafy greens.
- Lettuce-like edible leafy greens.
- Perennial pot herbs & medicinal herbs.
The options available to you will depend on where you live and the climate and conditions to be found there. But there are bound to be a wealth of options for almost any location.
You can begin by thinking about the edible potential of native plants in your area before you branch out to consider other plants from elsewhere that might thrive where you live.
Trees & shrubs with edible leaves.
When we think about edible leafy greens, we are most likely to think first of herbaceous plants. But trees and shrubs can also have edible leaves. There are a number of trees that have leaves that are delicious in the spring, when they first unfurl. They can be an interesting and useful addition to spring salads. Other trees have leaves that can be consumed all season long.
Growing your own trees with edible leaves can be a great idea. Trees and shrubs often take little work to grow, especially when compared to annual crops. That means that you can gain an often abundant yield of edible leaves without much work.
Many of these trees and shrubs are great additions to a low maintenance forest garden. Some are also great for wild hedgerows or shelter belts. They can also be used as stand-alone ornamental or specimen trees to enhance your outside space.
Most don’t only provide edible leaves. They also provide a range of other yields, from fuel or wood for crafting or construction, to fruits, nuts, seeds, sap and many more things of great use around your homestead. The edible leaves are just one extra bonus on a long list of benefits.
For gardeners in temperate climates, beech, birch, linden/lime, maple, hawthorn and mulberry are just some of the options to consider. Moringa is one of the best known trees with edible leaves for those living in a warmer climate zone.
Lettuce-like edible leafy greens
Returning to herbaceous plants, there are many more options beyond the traditional annuals in cultivation, and beyond annual ‘weeds’ in foraging. Many perennial plants offer leaves that, like lettuce, are wonderful for use in salads and for raw eating.
Chicory, and sorrels and mallows are a few examples.
Spinach-like edible leafy greens
There are others which, like spinach or chard, can work well both for salads and wilted down in a wide range of cooked recipes. Perennial spinach alternatives are far too numerous to name, but you should find that there are many options that will grow well where you live.
To cook like spinach (but not for raw eating) one of my favourites is Good King Henry, (Blitum bonus-henricus),, a perennial in the goosefoot family which provides leaves that are like spinach when cooked. This plant also provides edible shoots in spring.
Another of my top favourite perennial edibles is the ubiquitous stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). The young leaves, when cooked, have a texture and taste that resembles spinach, with, I find, just a little more sweetness.
Brassicas and Brassica-like edible leafy greens
While most gardeners are most familiar with brassica (cabbage family) crops grown as annuals or biennials in a vegetable garden, it is also important to note that there are a range of perennial brassicas to choose from, such as Daubenton’s kale, tree cabbages, ewiger kohl, and nine-star-perennial broccoli, to name a few examples.
Of course, there are also plenty of other perennial plants that produce edible leaves that resemble those of brassica crops that sustainable gardeners might consider. These often tougher leaves are often, like edibles, fine for raw eating when young but are best cooked as they mature.
Perennial pot herbs & medicinal herbs
While these leafy greens are not eaten in as large quantities, many other plants are herbs which can be used as garnishes, or as pot herbs in a range of recipes. As well as considering common perennial herbs, there are also plenty of more unusual and less well known plants to consider.
Often, herbs with culinary uses are also medicinal herbs, and extremely beneficial additions to your diet.
The Properties of Edible Leafy Greens
When choosing edible leafy greens, one interesting thing to consider is the nutritional profile of each plant you are considering.
While leafy greens can all be excellent additions to your diet, some are more nutrient-rich than others and it is interesting to look into the nutrient profiles of different plants in order to ascertain the benefits that they can provide to your health.
Some, for example, (those with darker green leaves) are higher in vitamin K (involved in photosynthesis) than others.
Where to Grow Edible Leafy Greens
When choosing where to grow edible leafy greens, and which ones to grow, you will of course have to know the needs of the plants in question. You will also need to understand your sight and the growing conditions that you can provide.
One important thing to think about is sunlight and shade. Remember that some leafy greens will require more light to grow successfully than others.
In general, however, plants grown for leafy greens rather than for roots, shoots or fruits will require less light, and can cope with partial shaded conditions or dappled shade.
In fact, it can be beneficial to grow some leafy greens in a somewhat shaded location rather than in full sun because a shaded location can promote larger leaf growth, as plants grow larger leaves to maximize photosynthesis where less light is available.
Where you are trying to maximize food production on your property, utilizing somewhat more shaded spaces to grow edible leafy greens can also help you make sure that brighter and sunnier spots are available for those plants that do really require it.
However, note that it is important to consider the time of year when you are growing annual crops, as well as where you live, as these things can dictate how much shade is desirable and how much shade will be too much for the plants you have chosen.
In a perennial planting scheme, such as a forest garden, leafy greens will frequently grow best in light, dappled shade, but many may begin to struggle where the canopy is particularly dense, especially in cooler climate zones.
Incorporating Edible Leafy Greens in Permaculture Projects
Leafy green plants can of course be grown in a wide range of settings, and determining where one might grow edibles of this kind within a permaculture project can help you see just how varied and interesting this category of plants can be.
Edible Leafy Greens In Small-Space Permaculture
One of the good things about many edible leafy greens is that they can be grown even in the smallest of spaces. Whether you grow typical annual options like lettuce, herbs, or a more unusual edible herbaceous perennial plant, there are many edible leafy greens that can be grown in pots or containers.
Some lettuce and certain other leafy salad greens have the interesting characteristic of being ‘cut-and-come-again’ plants. They can be harvested more than once, and often several times over the course of a growing season. This means you can obtain more food than you might have imagined from even a tiny space.
These leafy greens that will regrow once some leaves are harvested are extremely quick and easy to grow – great for beginners. Some can be ready to harvest in as little as four to six weeks, and so offer a quick return for our effort.
Even more quickly, we can obtain micro-greens – small shoots of a number of brassicas and other plants that are eaten while still very small. Or sprouted seeds which can be a healthy addition to our diets.
Micro-greens and sprouted seeds can be grown even when you do not have any garden space at all, on a sunny windowsill or another bright location within a home. They are great for salads, sandwiches or other uses.
Edible Leafy Greens In Hydroponics & Aquaponics
Many smaller leafy plants with edible leaves also work well within space-saving and water-saving water-based growing systems.
Hydroponics, and especially aquaponics systems, which involve raising fish as well as growing plants within closed-loop systems, can also be interesting permaculture solutions.
Aquaponics systems can be especially of interest where land space and/or water availability are low. Certain leafy greens are ideally suited to use in this sort of system, and are among the easiest plants to grow in this way.
Edible Leafy Greens In Polyculture Vegetable Beds
Typical vegetable garden edible leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, chard, kale, collards, cabbage etc. can be grown in any typical vegetable plot or raised bed setup.
In permaculture, of course, we do not grow our crops as mono-crops, but rather aim for diversity and create polycultures of beneficial plants that work well together rather than on their own.
Choosing the right companion plants for leaf vegetable crops can allow us to ensure fertility – in particular providing the nitrogen needed for healthy foliage through the use of nitrogen-fixers.
It can help us to provide a little shade that can be important to prevent bolting – especially in warmer regions. It can allow us to conserve moisture in the soil, maintain healthy ecological balance, and control pests.
Companion planting with certain edible leafy greens can also bring benefits.
Low growing and shallower rooted edible leafy greens like lettuce and similar leafy plants can be grown between slower growing, deeper rooted species to make the most of the space, and create groundcover to protect the soil, conserve soil moisture and reduce pressure from weeds.
For example, one idea is to grow lettuce between rows of brassicas, to be harvested before the brassica plants need the space.
One good companion planting combination I use involves growing lettuce or other similar leafy greens alongside peas (for nitrogen fixation) and radishes (helpful for pest control) early in the season.
With the right planting plan, crop rotation plans, and successional sowing, we can ensure that we have a continual source of leafy greens from our gardens all year round.
In warmer climates, cool-season leafy crops can be sown outside in autumn/fall. In cooler areas, polytunnel or greenhouse growing offers the opportunity for year-round cultivation.
However, beyond the best-known annuals and biennials, we can grow not only common crops but also other perennial leafy greens in our vegetable gardens – creating healthy perennial polycultures as well as annual/biennial ones.
One great idea involves growing perennial brassicas alongside perennial alliums and certain perennial herbs, for example, for relatively low-maintenance beds.
Edible Leafy Greens In Forest Gardening
Of course, when it comes to perennial planting schemes, forest gardening can often be the ultimate solution. These layered planting schemes work well at a range of scales and in a range of locations.
The idea is that we create ecologically functioning systems that provide many edible and other yields while mimicking the structure and function of a natural woodland or forest.
Leafy greens can potentially be found at all layers in a forest garden. As mentioned above, there are trees with edible leaves.
Below these, we may have shrubs with edible leaves, and an almost endless variety of taller and ground covering edible leafy greens that thrive in the light, dappled shade below the other layers. There are also climbers with edible leaves that can potentially grow up through the layers of a forest garden.
Edible Leafy Greens In Lawns & Meadows
Above, we mentioned that many of the plants that many commonly consider to be weeds can actually be useful edible greens.
Those dandelions, for example, that many seek to eradicate from their lawns provide a number of edible yields, including young, bitter leaves. And there are many, many, other ‘lawn weeds’ or wild meadow or grassland plants that offer edible leafy greens.
So rather than trying to maintain ecological deserts of mono-crop lawn, we should embrace biodiversity and note that even a lawn or meadow could potentially provide us with sources of food, as well as helping local wildlife.
Edible Leafy Greens in Flower Beds & Borders
Another interesting and important thing to note is that edible leafy greens can come from plants that are not only useful but also extremely attractive. Some come, in fact, from flowering plants often grown in gardens as ornamentals (e.g. nasturtiums) , or from foliage plants used in an ornamental setting (hostas) to give just a couple of examples.
We should always remember that gardens do not have to be productive or ornamental – they can be both when we select the right plants and combine those plants in the right ways.
Edible Leafy Greens in Different Environments.
One final thing to think about when planning a garden is that there are edible leafy greens that will grow in almost every environment – from water, to arid desert. We might grow watercress or other aquatic edibles in a garden pond, for example. And can explore edible succulents like purslane for very dry locations.
No matter where you live and how you grow your own, you should be able to find numerous interesting edible leafy greens that you can grow.