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Growing Mustard for Greens, Cover Crops, and Seeds

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Mustard is an ancient plant that has plenty of appeal for today’s gardeners. This hardy plant is easy to grow and produces seed in as little as 60 days. The greens are edible and can be used in salads, soups, stews, egg and potato dishes, casseroles, and more. Mustard flowers are a beautiful bright yellow, and when you allow the seeds to mature, they will self sow and allow for more and more mustard. 

If you are into eating the delicious and nutritious greens or making your own mustard, this is the plant for you. Just a dollar’s worth of seed will give you a pantry full of fine and fancy mustard to enjoy and share with friends and family.

From an ordinary seed come something extraordinary

Mustard is a small and very average seed with a grand ability to grow into a beautiful and prolific plant. References found in the Bible and Shakespeare’s works attest to its mightiness. 

“The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all seeds. But when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. “  —Matthew 13:31-32

Historical use of mustard dates back to ancient civilizations, which used it as an oil, spice, and medicinal plant. It was first introduced into western and northern Europe in the early Middle Ages.

Through the years, mustard has gained status due to its medicinal properties. It has been used as an appetite stimulant, digestive aid, and a potent decongestant. It increases blood circulation and has been used in plaster form to reduce inflammation. Folklore tells us that you can sprinkle mustard powder in your socks to prevent frostbite.

Today, mustard is second in demand to pepper among spices in the United States. 

A winemaker’s friend

Mustard plants (Brassica kaber)  are a winemaker’s friend. In early spring, the California wine country is alive with the bright yellow flowers of the mustard plant. Many vineyards are covered deliberately in mustard as a cover crop. When these plants are plowed into the ground, they act as green manure, releasing valuable nitrogen. Mustard plants also repel insects and attract beneficial predators that will attack harmful insects.

The mustard family

Mustards are from the Cruciferae family that also includes broccoli and cabbage, Brassica nigra, B.alba, and B. juncea produce black, yellowish-tan, and brown seeds, respectively. Moderately spicy mustards are made with black seeds, and French cooks used them to make Dijon-style mustard. West Indian dishes fry the black seeds until they pop. The greens of the black variety are less desirable, and plants are generally grown for the seed.

White seeds are used in traditional mild mustards found at your local grocery store. White seeds are also great for preserving foods such as pickles, relishes, and chutneys. White mustards are, like black mustards, not grown for their greens.

The brown mustard is the hottest of the three and used for spicy Chinese mustards, Dijon-style mustard, and curries. For greens, use B. juncea or an Oriental type like “Giant Red.”

Growing mustard

Whether you wish to grow mustard as a cover crop or enjoy the seeds and greens, it is particularly easy to plant, care for, and harvest. Mustard is one of my favorite fall crops and really dresses up the garden with its colorful and frilly leaves. If you wish to grow mustard for seeds, this is best done in the spring.

Mustard grows well in moist soil but likes fertile, well-drained, and well-prepared soil the best. It also thrives in a pH of no less than 6.0 and when given constant moisture.

Growing mustard for greens

As mentioned above, red mustards like “Red Giant” and “Osaka Purple,” are some of the best edible ornamentals for a fall garden. The “Southern Giant” or “Green Wave” types have beautiful curled leaves and are delicious culinary greens.

Mustard seeds germinate quickly when scattered over a renovated bed. Be sure to pat them with your hand or the back of a rake. In two weeks, like magic, the planted area will become a beautiful sea of green. Thin plants that are being grown for greens to a hand’s distance apart. Young greens are delicious in stir-fries. When greens are grown in warm weather, they have a stronger flavor. As temperatures cool down, flavors become more subtle. If you wish, you can lop off summer mustard and put it in your compost, and the plant is generally willing to regrow in time for delicious fall greens.

Mustard greens can tolerate light frost, but temperatures below 20 degrees F will usually kill the plants back to the ground. Chop down old plants and mix the roots and greens deep into the soil to kill nematodes and keep common soil diseases at bay.

Growing mustard for a cover crop

Mustard makes a great in-between cover crop that will add much value to the soil. When sown in late summer, it will thrive and smother weeds at the same time. Studies show that live mustard plant tissues, seeds, and roots contain compounds that act as soil biofumigants, killing nematodes and pathogenic fungi. To reap this benefit, mustard must be treated like green manure – chopped down and quickly turned under. I like to plant lettuce right after turning under mustard, and I always have a prolific crop with few weeds.

Growing mustard for seeds

If you desire to experience fresh spices from your own garden, mustard is a great crop to start with. Mustard seeds have endless culinary uses such as toasting for garnish, grinding for seasoning or sauces or soaking them in water and blending with oil, vinegar and other spices to make your own delicious homemade mustards.

Growing mustard seeds for eating is easy. Grow a few nice plants in the spring and stake them, so they don’t fall over. They will need to bloom and set seeds. Wait for seed pods to dry and gather them in a paper bag and let them dry until they become crunchy. Squish the pods with your hands and collect the seeds. 

If you are growing a long row of mustard plants, wait for them to dry, cut the stalks below the seed pods and place them in a tote Step on them to push them down into the tote. Use a colander with a large bowl underneath and gently rub the dried pods to release the seeds. They will fall through the colander holes to the bowl below, leaving the dried seed pod above.

There you have it! What fun it is to grow mustard for greens, cover crops and seeds. This is truly a valuable and versatile crop that everyone should try.

-Susan Patterson

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