Greens From the Greenhouse and Greens from the Out-of-Doors


Kale, chard, and other greens from the greenhouse.

Kale, chard, and other greens from the greenhouse.

A neighbor in my village built an amazing greenhouse last year. Cold air comes up from the bottom and cools it in the summer. In the winter it’s 80 degrees and climbing inside when it’s freezing outside. No wonder he put a bed in there – who wouldn’t want to be warmed by the sun heated room when the night digits plummet to 6 degrees? The problem is that the greenhouse has been so successful that Scott, who built it, has far more greens than he can possibly eat. This means that I, along with other people and two goats, have been the happy recipient of big bags of kale, chard, beet greens, spinach, arugula, and Romaine lettuce. These leaves glisten. They glimmer. They glow. And they are all as soft as flower petals. We enjoy them in soups, salads, braised, even in smoothies. Then I get to go back for more. To have fresh produce in winter is an unexpected joy and I am now seriously bent on putting up a greenhouse of my own.

When it comes to delicacy and cole crops, I have never really put the two together. It’s almost as if they wanted a blast of cold air to toughen up a little. I plunged them in cold water, then dried and refrigerated them thinking that would give them a little more backbone, but it didn’t. Not that there’s anything wrong with these greens just the way they are. They’re surprising, but I’m thrilled to have something from as close as down the road and picked as recently as this morning. This is food that’s alive!

Two weeks ago in Davis, California, I came across their opposites, you might say, while shopping at the farmers market. I bought a pound of mixed greens:  kale (four different kinds), savoy cabbage (that January cabbage again), some chard and other brassicas. No protection had been offered these babies. They’d been outside growing through the California rain and chill, growing thick and tough and strong. Unlike the greenhouse leaves, these were so tough and bouncy that for a moment I actually wondered if they’d become tender in the pan? I took them back to cheap oakley my sister-in-law’s house and braised them with garlic and my brother’s olive oil and in fifteen minutes they were tender and succulent and so, so, very good.  The greenhouse greens, cooked the same way, were also very good, but it was interesting to see the difference that actual weather makes in strength. The greenhouse greens collapsed to a soft, tender little mound. The field greens did too, but not  nearly as much, and you could certainly discern one leaf type from another. If you were from another planet, you might think that you were looking at two entirely different mixes of vegetables. And in a way, you would be.

I gave the field grown greens another try and used them in a salad of cabbage and kale, finely slivered and tossed with the same good olive oil I had been using with the greenhouse greens. They started out tough, but ended up toothy-tender, and because they were strong leaves from the get go, they were good the next day, too. The greenhouse salad was soft, the leaves didn’t need to be slivered at all, it was best eaten as soon as it was tossed, and it wanted a softer oil and less acidic vinegar than those from the out-of-doors. But was one better than cheap oakley sunglasses the other? They were different, and I’d be happy with either.

If you like kale salads, make your favorite and include some of that crinkly cabbage in it. And don’t shun those greens that are as thick as soft cardboard. They’ll be fine.


Kale and cabbage salad in a bowl by Robert Brady.

Kale and cabbage salad in a bowl by Robert Brady.

17 comments to Greens From the Greenhouse and Greens from the Out-of-Doors

  • Interesting observations, Deborah. I only have experience eating leafy greens grown outdoors. In the farm where I have been going to pick vegetables, kale is bolting right now, which is fine with me because last year I discovered kale blossoms, which are fun to pick and cook.

  • Simona – so true about the kale blossoms! Same is true of the collards when they bolt and flower -nothing like
    eating the whole plant!

  • Janel

    We are doing a spring greens CSA starting up here in a few weeks, so I am really looking forward to cooking with wonderful produce again. In the early part of our summer share, we do have some greenhouse greens and I find them to be very tender, however, the field greens later in the season are fabulous in flavor and texture as well. Sadly, when I’ve purchased the same from the grocery store, I have not had the best results–no one will eat the leftovers, and the real test: my children won’t ask for seconds.

    • Jane – that’s interesting about your kids not asking for seconds or eating the leftovers. People so often ask about kids and vegetables and how to “get them” to eat more, but here’s a clue—start with what’s really good to begin with. I know, after I got those tender greens home I looked at what I had bought at Whole Foods (and paid a lot for), and it just seemed dead. Tasted okay, but not great, like those field greens or greenhouse greens.

  • Michael Nicola

    Such a good read, Deborah. Thank You. Like you, we’ve been fortunate to have friends (including Carole & Tracey) who are growing at home in small, raised bed “green huts” in addition to the Farmer’s Market and Whole Foods (not so much) and, La Manzanita. Eating (and juicing) vegetables by the pound each and every day, we’ve become so sensitive to the differences, as you suggest. You pointed out that the salads, particularly the farm grown greens, actually can last longer. An important distinction. So happy that the range of what’s available is literally growing by the day! M

    • Thank you, Michael, for your comment. It’s true, isn’t it, how much more aware we are becoming of all aspects of our foods, including vegetables. It’s quite a ride to discover these things!

  • we are so fortunate in santa fe to have many growers providing greens at the farmers market throughout the winter, and i notice that toward the end of april, when greens can be grown outside in the open, the greenhouse greens start to get leggy and thinner, less vibrant. the different energetic properties in food is something that i think about with every meal and am so glad to read your piece.

    if you put in a greenhouse it would be fun to see pictures of it going up. also love to see your neighbors greenhouse!

  • Ali

    That greenhouse sounds terribly alluring! What made it so warm? I’m afraid you’re going to say winter sunshine, which is in very short supply in our corner of the world. We have an unused garage that seems like it would make a perfect greenhouse but I suspect sun is required.

    • Not only some sun, but light is needed, too, Ali! What made this one so warm is that it’s narrow so the heat is concentrated. Also the south wall
      is adobe which is a great heat sink. I’ve had narrow walled yards that practically give me a California climate – one of the good things about a small space.

      • Ali

        Oh, I understand about the need for light…my idea with the garage would involve stripping it down to studs and putting in lots of glass (I work in construction so I have resources available!). But I’m really interested in what you say about small walled spaces creating more heat. Our yard seems inordinately cold and inhospitable compared to some neighbors, maybe there are modifications to make. It’s so great that there are always new tricks to learn with both cooking and gardening!

  • GREAT to see this subject brought up — and by one of the very best people on earth to do the bringing! I’ve been aware of the difference between field grown and protected for more years than I’d like to count, particularly with reference to hothouse annual herbs (like basil and dill), which are so “delicate” you can’t flavor anything with them unless it’s something that can take quite a bit of extra greenery. Very difficult to convey this sort of stuff in a recipe, however.

    Do you by any chance happen to know if greenhouse grown veg. are also lower in beneficial antioxidants than those grown outdoors? As I understand it, a lot of those AO’s are formed as a response to stress, and that’s one of the reasons organic crops (grown w/out strong pesticides and therefore forced to fight off enemies with their own resources) are looking as though they’ll prove to be more nutritious than the conventional “equivalents.” Somehow I doubt much good research has been done about this, but if there has been, you’d be more likely to know about it than anyone else I can think of. 🙂

    Meanwhile, we’ll be eating the very last of last year’s chard in the next couple of days. It was dug up late in fall and plopped into large pots with just the dirt clinging to the roots. Pots went in a bright but very cold (unheated) side porch and were simply left alone, watered only when I happened to notice the leaves were wilting. Lucky us in the porch department, necessary here in the Hudson Valley, but those in slightly more forgiving climates would probably have good luck with a pop-up greenhouse, as long as it had plenty of ventilation to compensate for too-sunny days.

    Here’s to outdoor spring greens for all of us soon – dandelions, here we come! – and thanks everso for this excellent post.

    • GREAT to hear from you, Leslie!
      You guessed it – I did prefer the greens grown out of doors. (Even got a note from the farmer!) I don’t know but
      I do suspect that the antioxidants in greenhouse grown vegetables are fewer; something has to be lost when you have so little vigor, at least so it seems to me. I haven’t researched it having been immersed in Vegetable Literacy the past 1 1/2 years, but a good thing to do.
      I suspect you’d have different results in a cooler greenhouse than my friend’s, which was 80′ and rising before 10:00AM.
      Interesting about digging up the chard and having it on your porch! I just cleaned out my chard bed and it was amazing – it smelled like chlorophyll (!) and leaves were sprouting. I didn’t maintain the bed this winter, but now comes some water.
      The reason I’d like a greenhouse is to keep my California/Mediterranean favorite plants alive, to start seeds, and have a warm, fragrant place to read and write – plus a few vegetables, antioxidants be damned.

  • Thanks for bringing up the difference between field and greenhouse grown! Certainly, a lot of season extension depends on greenhouses. As farms here in Southern Coastal Maine take up the challenge, we’re starting to see forays into hydroponics. While I respect the effort, it’s not something I want to eat, and wonder if we’re going in the wrong direction. Give me a stored cabbage over some tasteless trough-grown green any day, winter or summer!

    • There’s no doubt more than one way to extend the season, and if I lived in Maine I’d prefer to get some locally grown kale that’s been sheltered one way or another than having it shipped to me from a huge field in California. Hydroponics interest me not at all. I want soil for my roots, not IVs, but I know many are thrilled by the possibilities.

  • Margit Van Schaick

    Years ago, I read about research done at Woods Hole concerning the effect of less light available in Winter in a greenhouse: something about too much nitrate in vegetables, if I remember correctly. I’ve tried to look it up recently, but haven’t found the information. Do you know anything about this? Or where I can get more information? Thank you for your help—

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