Grow the baby leaf greens chefs want

13-05-2020    14:01   |    Greenhouse Grower

As healthful options continue to take an increasingly large place on restaurant menus, chefs are searching for the best produce they can get their hands on. However, for greenhouse vegetable growers who aim to sell their produce to restaurants, figuring out what chefs want can be a challenge.

Baby leaf greens — with their high diversity, short growth cycles, and ubiquitous use in salads — can be an excellent choice of crop, as they are easily grown in greenhouse systems and are in high demand from restaurants. Beyond lettuce, there are many species and cultivars of leafy greens. The following six considerations can help growers decide what exactly to grow to expertly meet chefs’ needs.

1. Flavor Comes First

If your leafy greens are meant to take center stage on the chef’s plate, they better pack a punch. For years, commercial breeding has favored shelf life, pest resistance, and vigor (all desirable traits) over flavor, but now seed companies are starting to put flavor first. However, finding these flavorful varieties out of the hundreds of options can still be a challenge. Talking with seed company representatives, trialing a variety of cultivars and conducting taste tests are all great ways to focus in on which varieties taste the best.

2. Out of the Ordinary Turns Heads

Can you offer something that no one else has? If so, this is a great way to get your produce into restaurants. One of the great benefits of greenhouse production is varieties that may not have been commercially successful in conventional production due to shelflife, or field production issues, may be cultivated with more success. So, experiment with something new and, again, consult with seed company representatives and chefs.

Aesthetics come down to shape and color, such as in this lobed, brightly colored lime-green lettuce variety ‘Sulu.’
Photo by Charles Gagne

3. Aesthetics Matter

With the prevalent use of social media and restaurant review sites comes the need for picture-perfect produce. In the end, this really comes down to shape and color. When it comes to shape, look for varieties with serration, lobes, frills, or other unique characteristics. With color, most leafy greens are going to be just that — green. However, look for varieties that are bright green or dark green, and stay away from pale-colored greens. Additionally, look for varieties that have novel coloring — whether it’s red, purple, or pink — as these varieties are going to look great on a plate and through the lens.

Baby greens must retain their freshness long after harvesting. The waxy leaves on ‘Flash’, a blue-green collard variety, help it resist wilting.
Photo by Charles Gagne

4. Fresh Is Best

Chefs demand freshness, but unfortunately, even with the perfect cold chain, not all varieties can stay fresh long enough to make it to the plate. Although greenhouse vegetable operations are typically located close to their customers, there is still a good chance harvested greens will sit in a cooler, whether yours or the restaurant’s, for a few days before they are served. Finding varieties that have the shelf life that fits with the logistics of your operation is vital. And remember, just because the crop looks good in your growing system doesn’t mean it’s going to look good after it’s been harvested.

5. Texture Adds to the Experience

Do your leafy greens wilt under the pressure of salad dressing? Do they offer loft and volume when put in a mix? Do they have the desired ‘mouth feel’ that chefs are looking for? Each of these is directly related to texture, which can vary greatly from variety to variety. When deciding what to grow, picking a desired texture and use — such as crunchy for salad mixes — is a great place to start. From there, look for commercial varieties that are described as having your desired texture, and trial them in your system. And of course, try a few bites of each to check that the texture is exactly what you want.

‘Red Pac’ is a purple-leafed bok choi variety with a great shelflife.
Photo by Charles Gagne

6. Consistency and Reliability Count

Chefs need produce that consistently meets a high standard of quality and that can be supplied reliably, and preferably, year-round. Greenhouse vegetable production systems that allow for greenhouse climate control can benefit greatly from this. The ability to control the greenhouse climate allows growers to produce a product with consistent appearance, size, and flavor throughout the year. However, not every cultivar will grow in one system reliably for that long. This may mean finding different varieties for different seasons or altering your greenhouse climate controls as the seasons change to allow one variety to grow successfully year-round. If a variety does not grow well yearlong, working with chefs to highlight seasonal greens is also a great option.

Choosing the right varieties to grow may seem like a challenge, but by using these considerations, working with seed companies, and trialing an array of cultivars, you will soon find which crops both appeal to chefs and grow well in your system. Once and for all, let us put bland and boring behind us, and show chefs the amazing leafy greens we can produce.

Best Greens for Your Needs

The list below highlights leafy greens varieties that fit well with a range of attributes desirable to chefs.


– ‘Curlesi’ (a green, leafy endive with a deliciously bitter flavor) 

– ‘Red Russian’ (a colorful kale with a slightly sweet and nutty flavor) 

– ‘Magenta’ (a red, crunchy, sweet-tasting lettuce) 


– ‘Wasabina’ (a unique mustard with a spicy, wasabi-like kick) 

– ‘La Rosa del Veneto’ (a photo-worthy, bright-pink radiccio) 

– ‘Red Garnet’ (a beautiful, red-colored amaranth that can be used like spinach) 


– ‘Sulu’ (a lobed, brightly colored, lime-green lettuce, see above) 

– ‘Oscarde’ (a beautiful, dark lettuce) 

– ‘Ruby Red’ (a red-veined, dark-green chard with bright-red stems) 


– ‘Flash’ (a blue-green collard with slightly waxy leaves that resist wilting, see above) 

– ‘Green Star’ (a crunchy, green lettuce that always looks freshly harvested) 

– ‘Red Pac’ (a purple-leafed bok choi with a great shelflife, see above) 


– ‘Tropicana’ (a crunchy, green lettuce that offers a lot of volume to a salad mix) 

– ‘Teodore’ (a red butterhead lettuce with perfectly soft leaves) 

– ‘Merlot’ (a beautiful, purple cabbage with an amazing crunch) 

Charles Gagne is a graduate of Cornell University’s MPS program in Controlled-Environment Agriculture See all author stories here.


Source: Greenhouse Grower

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