Published on 08/26/98

Cultivating Collards: a Step-by-step Guide

Who'd have ever thought collards had an interesting history dating back to prehistoric times? That's right. Washed down, cooked up, piled up by the side of a slab of cornbread: collards.

One of the most primitive members of the cabbage group, these leafy, nonheading cabbages originated in the eastern Mediterranean. They are much like the wild forms of cabbage in Asia Minor first used for food in prehistoric times.

Collards were cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and either the Romans or the Celts introduced them to Britain and France. They reached the British Isles in 400 B.C. The first mention of collards in America was in 1669. But they may have been here much earlier.

Collards (also known as tree cabbage or nonheading cabbage) are cool-season vegetable greens rich in vitamins and minerals. They grow better in warm weather and can tolerate more cold weather in the late fall than any other member of the cabbage family.

Popular substitutes for cabbage in the South, collards can also be grown in northern areas because of their tolerance to frost. They're close kin to kale.

Two good varieties grow especially well in Georgia.

The first, Georgia, takes 75 days to mature. It has large, crumpled, blue-green leaves, is tolerant to heat and cold and offers good yields.

Vates also takes 75 days to mature. It has large, crumpled, dark green leaves, holds color in cold weather, resists bolting and offers good yields.

Plant collards in early spring for summer harvest and again in midsummer for fall and early winter harvest.

For best results, sow seed one-quarter to one-half inch deep. Thin seedlings to 6 to 12 inches apart to allow enough space for the plants to mature. You can eat the thinned plants.

Allow at least 3 feet between rows, because the plants become quite large. For early production in fall or spring, use transplants.

If you keep the soil moist enough during hot spells in the summer, collards will produce an abundant harvest.

All green parts of the plant are edible. You may harvest them anytime during the growing season. Plants grown 6 inches apart can be cut to the ground when they get 6 to 10 inches tall.

As an alternative way to harvest, pick the large leaves when the plants are 10 to 12 inches high. This allows the younger leaves to develop for later use.

Some gardeners prefer the young, tender leaves and cut the inner rosette of young growth. You can blanch this "loose head" by tying the outer leaves together to keep out the sun.

Don't worry about fall frost. It only improves the flavor.

Walter Reeves is a horticulture educator with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and is host of the weekly Georgia Public Television series, "Gardening in Georgia."