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Lettuce makes up over 70 percent of all leafy vegetables sold in the US, and most of that is iceberg lettuce. If you were to stay up all night trying to think up the worst food distribution plan possible, you would have trouble coming up with something as illogical as the iceberg or head lettuce industry. While greens as a food category are extremely nutritious, head lettuce is a notable exception. A comparison with kale is instructive. Kale is well known, easily grown, and nutritious (though there are still many greens with greater nutritional value). An equal weight of kale has triple the protein, four times the iron, seven times the calcium, 30 times the vitamin A, and over 40 times the vitamin C supplied by head lettuce.
Growing five billion pounds of a nutritionally crippled food that is 96 percent water in southwestern deserts with subsidized irrigation water is the start of a very bad plan. Then, wrapping each lettuce head in plastic and shipping it thousands of miles in a refrigerated truck doesn’t ring of genius either. Days later, the lettuce arrives at supermarkets in areas where local farmers who could be growing far better greens are struggling to stay in business. It sounds like a spoof on modern agriculture, but this is how we eat.
Because it grows close to the soil and is eaten raw, lettuce is one of the most frequent sources of food poisoning. Because it is so mild flavored and tender, it is attractive to many insects and so it must be protected with insecticides. Enough of the pesticides remain on lettuce to make it one of the ten worst foods for pesticide residues. Despite its many nutritional and agricultural limitations, iceberg lettuce is our most important vegetable in terms of sales. You could almost describe it as the corn syrup of leafy greens.
In midst of this somewhat stagnant state of affairs, there is a whiff of change in the air. We appear to finally be getting bored with head lettuce. The share of sales going to leaf-type lettuce is increasing at the expense of iceberg head types. We are also gradually becoming more adventuresome, adding other greens, such as arugula, Asian cabbages, and endives to salads. It should also be noted that leaf vegetables grown with organic methods, whether certified or not, have essentially no pesticide residues. This is true for organically grown greens from industrial farms, local farms, or backyard gardens.
If You Can Afford Organic Greens, Why Grow Your Own?
Buying organic leafy vegetables (along with apples, celery, peaches, strawberries, bell peppers, and grapes) is clearly justified in order to avoid pesticide residues. However, just being labeled “organic” doesn’t guarantee that the greens are any fresher, more nutritious, or free from the pathogens that may cause food poisoning. Buying from a farmers market or CSA usually means fresher greens that have been grown in better soil and handled with greater care, but they are probably only available once or twice a week. Buying from either a supermarket or a local food market, your choices of leafy vegetables will be limited by what is most profitable to the retailers or the big farmers. Growing your own changes all the rules. As you progressively master the craft of gardening, you can gain a level of control over the food you eat and access possibilities well beyond the offerings in the commercial sales outlets. Nowhere are those possibilities greater than with leaf vegetables. There are over 1,000 species of plants that have edible leaves. They offer a dazzling array of shapes, colors, and flavors currently unavailable to consumers.
Leaf crops can be annual herbs, perennial shrubs, or even trees. Some are vigorous twining climbers that can quickly turn a chain link fence into a wall of edible greenery. Barley and Austrian winter peas make mild-flavored greens, and they are hardy enough to last after frost has killed the tomatoes. Cowpeas and fenugreek can be grown for edible leaves and for enriching the soil with nitrogen. They can be planted in between rows of heavy nitrogen feeders, like corn.
Tropical leaf crops can be raised that shrug off the hottest days of summer – when lettuce and spinach turn bitter and go to seed. Summer in much of the world’s temperate zones has long stretches of tropical weather. That is all it takes to grow great crops of tropical greens like molokhaya, soko, and vine spinach. When it does turn cold, you can still harvest Siberian kale at temperatures down to 0°F (–17°C). If your soil is too salty for a garden, you can still grow orach, a very salt-tolerant leaf crop in the Atriplex family.
The following chapters will give you the practical information you need to take leafy vegetables to the next level. I hope you can forget all about pale, bland, plastic-wrapped leafy vegetables and have fun taking a plunge into the chlorophylled world of edible foliage.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Eat Your Greens: The Surprising Power of Homegrown Leaf Crops by Dave Kennedy.
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