Cooked greens with ham hocks, smoked tasso, or salt pork and potlikker are eaten all over the South. Growing up in the Pineywoods of East Texas, I noticed that folks ate different greens according to geography and culture. My people ate mostly turnip greens. But when I lived in southeast Texas and South Louisiana, I noticed that most of them preferred mustard greens, including my Cajun wife. That’s great news for a gardener because mustard greens have the largest leaves, and it takes less picking to fill a pot. The key to great mustard greens is to grow them in cool weather and harvest young tender leaves so they won’t be bitter.
Mustard greens are cool-weather plants that bloom and die when the weather is hot. The greens’ flavor gets stronger with heat as well. And like most greens, the texture gets tougher. Mustard greens can tolerate frosts but not hard freezes, so they should be planted now. Mustard is easily direct seeded into the garden. Once the seedlings are established and have true leaves, thin them to 4 to 6 inches apart.
Mustard greens require at least eight hours of direct sun each day, but like most greens, they can tolerate as little as five to six hours of direct sun. Just remember that any amount of shade reduces production. Plant mustard greens in a rich, well-drained soil. Ideally, till in several inches of compost and apply 2 pounds of complete lawn fertilizer (15-5-10, 18-6-12, etc.) per 100 square feet of bed or every 35 feet of row. In small plots use 2 teaspoons per square foot or foot of row. The ideal soil pH for growing mustard greens is 5.5 to 7.0.
Mustard greens can be grown either in raised beds or rows several feet apart. Scatter the seed on tilled soil that has been raked smooth. Gently rake the seed into the soil, making sure that it is no deeper than ¼ of an inch below the surface of the soil. Water gently and keep the soil moist until germination (sprouting) occurs. Then reduce the frequency of watering so that the plants gradually get tougher.
The keys to growing good mustard greens are cool temperatures, high fertility, and frequent harvesting. Leaves that become old and tough will be bitter and hot tasting. To keep leaves fresh and tender, shear the entire plant with hedge clippers every two to three weeks and side-dress with a high-nitrogen fertilizer (21-0-0, etc.) at 1 cup per 35 foot of row. Slugs as well as flea beetles can be a problem, especially during warm weather. Pick off the buggy leaves and treat the plants with an insecticide labeled for greens, if necessary, following all label directions.
Mustard greens are ready to harvest just thirty-five to fifty days after seeding. Any part of the plant is tender and edible from the time it germinates, so feel free to pick leaves to eat or to use entire plants that are thinned at any time. Either pick the large but still tender, pest-free older leaves from the bottom of the plant or cut the entire plant just above the ground. It’s much better to pick mustard too soon rather than too late, as it will tend to get strongly flavored with age. Wash and prepare, or refrigerate, immediately. For those that don’t like cooked mustard greens, consider using a tender leaf on your sandwich or hamburger instead of lettuce and mustard.
Recommended mustard green varieties for Texas include ‘Florida Broadleaf’, ‘Green Wave’, ‘Southern Giant Curled’, and ‘Tendergreen’. Mustard greens are native to the Mediterranean.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is the author of Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, Heirloom Gardening in the South, and The Rose Rustlers. You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com, read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com), and follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens.” More science-based lawn and gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggieturf.tamu.edu and aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu.