Kale (Brassica oleracea Acephala Group) may be all the rage, but for a change of pace, try kale's nearest of kin, collard greens (also classified as Brassica oleracea Acephala Group), a staple of Southern cooking. Like kale, collards are cool-weather cousins of cabbage and broccoli that produce big, leafy greens rich in vitamins and minerals. Collard greens will grow throughout much of the United States. Try one of the classic heirloom varieties, or opt for a hybrid suited to your region and climate.
Loose-leaf collards have smoother leaves and less of a heading characteristic than cabbage-type collards. Popular varieties include low-growing "Vates." The variety "Champion" is similar to "Vates," but is ready for harvest about two weeks earlier, and is prized for its heightened resistance to summer heat. "Georgia LS" is also popular for its resistance to bolting. "Green Glaze," another loose-leaf collard, is less likely to attract caterpillars than other collards.
Cabbage-type collards are more compact that loose-leaf collards, and tend to have curlier foliage. One of the oldest known varieties, "Morris Heading" is a light-green color with a compact growing habit. Be warned, however, that "Morris Heading" is known for its quickness to go to seed in hot weather. "Cabbage Collards" is the second of this small heirloom category. The related variety "Yellow Cabbage Collards" is named for its yellow tint.
Hybrids tend to have a higher yield, on average, than heirloom varieties. "Blue Max" is a popular variety for its curly, bluish leaves, but it does have a tendency to bolt. "Flash" is similar to "Vates," but is more upright. "Top Bunch" is similar to "Georgia LS," but the leaves are more upright and blue-green colored. "Top Pick" is considered to be an almost exact hybrid of "Vates" and "Georgia LS," with characteristics of both.
No matter what variety you choose to grow, collards have similar growing needs. Working a 2-inch layer of compost into the garden bed before planting improves both texture and fertility. The leafy greens grow best in full sun, and where pH levels are between 6.5 and 7.5. Test the soil, and use lime according to test results to raise low pH, or sulfur to lower high pH.
Transplants or seeds can go into the ground about 4 weeks before the last frost date. Space them 1 foot apart in rows set 2 feet apart. Giving them 1 inch of water per week, as well as more compost when the plants are about 5 weeks old, will ensure good yield and quality. Depending on the variety, collard leaves will be ready for harvest about 70 days after seeding.