Sunday, April 3, 2022

April Harvest of the Month | Spring Greens 

high tunnels

Spring Greens are the edible young leaves or new growth of plants. Spring greens are the tender new growth that first emerges in early spring. In the Adirondacks, spring greens start to appear in greenhouses at the end of March and early April. 

These tender greens are the unofficial start of the new year. They are the first fresh growth of the season! They indicate that young radishes, asparagus, and scallions are coming soon. 

When we say “spring greens”, we mean baby cut lettuce, kale, chard, spinach, and other plants like bok choy. Many times, a variety of different spring greens or types of lettuces are packaged together and called “Spring Mix” or “Salad Mix.”

History and Facts

Humans have been eating tender spring greens for thousands of years. People would forage for the first wild green leaves of plants like dandelion, nettle, chickweed, and lambs quarters. Bagged salad mixes of baby greens have only been popularized in the United States in the last forty years or so. 

Lettuce forged the way for the now commonplace practice of being able to buy virtually any fresh vegetable any time of year across the United States as the “First Seasonless Vegetable”. Lettuce was one of the first vegetables shipped from the Salinas Valley in California via train to New York City, Boston and Chicago as refrigeration improved after World War II. 

In the 1950s-60s, grocery stores started adding more refrigerated shelf space, making room for more “cold chain” products like fresh lettuce shipped in. As the market for “convenience” foods continued to grow, in 1989 Del Monte was the first company to sell “value-added” produce with pre-cut and bagged pineapple chunks. This allowed them to use fruits with blemishes, and still charge a premium for their product.

California lettuce growers picked up on the trend and started making bagged salad mixes. There are a few California companies that claim to be the first in the world to specialize in these packaged salad mixes made with chopped lettuce. From there, baby greens became more favorable because they had a longer shelf life with each leaf having fewer cut edges to oxidize through the early 2000s. 

Today, over 90% of all salad mixes eaten in the United States are grown in California or Arizona. Salad mixes including other chopped veggies, dried fruits, nuts, and dressing are becoming more and more popular. Bagged salad mixes are estimated to be a $10.78 billion market worldwide, and is expected to grow another 8.2% in the next few years. 

spring greens

Wild Work Farm photo by Ben Stechschulte

How Spring Greens Are Grown in the Adirondacks

Many veggie farmers “overwinter” tender greens like baby lettuce, kale and spinach. “Overwintering” is when a cold-hardy plant like lettuce is planted in the fall, and is kept alive over the winter in a greenhouse. Over-wintering greens in a greenhouse can offer harvestable leaves through the winter and early spring. These plants are tucked in under sheets of fabric called “row cover” that is removed on sunny days and replaced at night. They are watered via irrigation and go through growth spurts depending on the cloud cover and outside temperature. In the spring as daylight hours get longer and temperatures begin to rise, the plants send out more new growth.

Spring greens are harvested with a knife by hand and then washed, bagged, and stored at optimal temperatures. From there, they are carefully delivered to markets and retail locations for you to enjoy. For every hour baby greens spend outside a temperature-controlled environment, they lose about a day of shelf-life. Some greens, like spinach and kale, actually thrive in cold temperatures. Both plants produce more sugars in cold temperatures to protect the leaves from frost, which makes them sweeter. 

juniper hill spring greens

Juniper Hill and Wild Work Farm spring greens. Photo courtesy of Craigardan

Why Local Spring Greens?

Because locally grown greens aren’t shipped for thousands of miles, they will be fresher, have a longer shelf life and a smaller carbon footprint. They will probably also taste better and have more nutrients. Buying local spring greens also supports area farmers during a very challenging time in the growing season. 

How to Eat Spring Greens

The best thing about baby greens is that they don’t require much preparation to enjoy them. They are washed before they are bagged (but another wash at home is always recommended) and the leaves are small enough they usually don’t need to be chopped or de-stemmed like mature bunches of greens. There are a lot of things you can do with fresh greens, but honestly, this time of year, they are so tender and delicious, they are best enjoyed raw! 

Recipes to try

Where to Buy Spring Greens

Wherever veggies are sold near you! To find the most interesting and flavorful spring greens, find them locally grown.

Find retail locations, farms, and winter markets selling greens at adirondackharvest.com/browse

How do you enjoy spring greens? Comment below and let us know!

Photo at top: Winter greens in a high-tunnel under row-cover, from JohnnysSeeds.com

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Mary Godnick

Mary Godnick is the Digital Editor for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Essex County. She lives in the Champlain Valley where she grows vegetables on a cooperative farm plot with her partner and two rescue dogs. You can read more of her work on AdirondackHarvest.com and follow her on Twitter at @MaryGodnick.




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