Danny Melius wants salad-eaters to think beyond iceberg lettuce. A favorite in restaurants, this crunchy staple contains small amounts of Vitamin A and Vitamin K—and it’s better than eating, for instance, french fries—but there are much more nutritious options for a salad.
Those options also have more flavor.
“Most people here are used to salads that don’t really taste like anything,” says Melius, the owner of Nuke City Veg, a multi-locational urban farm in Amarillo. “Along with the flavor comes the nutrients, so when you have something bland, without a lot of taste, it means there’s not much in it that’s good for you.”
Most of that crunchy iceberg lettuce is also grown in California, which means it must be harvested, cleaned, and transported a thousand miles before those leaves make it onto a local plate. As soon as a crop is picked, it starts to feed on its own nutrients. The longer a vegetable sits on a truck or on a grocery store shelf, the more vitamins and nutrients it loses. Fresher is always better. “It’s going to be more nutrient-dense from your own environment than any imported stuff,” he says.
That’s why, in a world of supply-chain issues and worries about commercial pesticides, a few local restaurants would rather serve locally grown greens. Melius has partnered with restaurants like OHMS Cafe & Bar, Brent’s Cafe and Blue Crane Bakery to provide greens grown in Amarillo. He also sells his produce directly to the public through local display coolers, including Salt Spices & Specialties in Wolflin Village, along with a summer presence at local community markets.
But at the same time, Melius always advocates for local gardeners to experiment with their own crops—and leafy greens are particularly easy to grow in this area, especially during the mild temperatures of spring and fall. These plants love cool weather.
“I call it the shoulder season,” Melius says. “Spring and fall and even into winter, or the tail end of winter, the temperatures are just right for [leafy greens].”
They grow fast, too. A tomato plant takes all season to produce, and if something happens to that plant around August, an at-home tomato harvest might be ruined. But dark leafy greens can sometimes be harvested within just a few weeks of sowing the seeds. Once harvested, they’ll continue growing new leaves. (Eventually, summer heat causes them to bolt—sending up stalks of flowers—which means a reduction of flavor.)
“In the summer, I can get four or five harvests on stuff like my spring mix or lettuce mix,” he says. “Even if you have a failure, just clean out the dead stuff and spot-plant new seeds and you’ll have more in a month.”
Melius grows the following greens at his two farm locations and says all of them are great options for Amarillo vegetable gardens, especially when planted early in May.
Nuke City’s spring mix contains arugula, mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), the spinach-like tatsoi and red Russian kale. All of those grow readily in the Panhandle climate. “It does really well but has a strong flavor,” he says. “It’s not necessarily for everybody, but it’s great if you like a full-flavored salad.”
“I’ve also started selling arugula by itself. It’s hearty, with a warm, peppery taste to it,” Melius says. The intensity of arugula depends on when it’s harvested. Baby arugula will be milder, while mature arugula has a spicier kick.
Loose leaf lettuce
Iceberg lettuce forms a compact head, but loose leaf lettuce varieties grow, well, looser. “These do really well and have a more earthy flavor,” says Melius. “Some people consider it bitter, but I think that’s just the difference in quality. It has flavor. People are used to lettuce that tastes like water.”
“This is a plant-it-and-forget-it crop. You can harvest on it all year long,” he says. “Chard has a buttery, spinachy flavor and is really versatile.” Its broad leaf is great raw on a sandwich or torn apart in a salad. “I also like to saute it down with olive oil or butter,” he says.
These flavorful greens are also ideal for salads or sandwiches, but Melius warns that they do have intense flavor. “It’s a very strong flavor because it’s mustard,” he says. The seeds used to make mustard come from this plant, so expect a more pungent taste.
Some foodies love radish greens as well, but Melius says the root vegetable itself represents a great crop for hobby gardeners. “They are really easy and simple, and they tell you when they’re ready to be picked—the radish crowns out of the ground,” he explains. “And they grow really quick. If you have a failure, just replant it and you’ll have more in a month.”
For our salads at home, we like to use our baby carrots, Easter egg radishes, sun gold cherry tomatoes—which taste like candy—and cucumbers, with a simple balsamic vinaigrette.
1 (5-ounce) bag Nuke-City salad mix, if leaves are larger, slightly chopped
4 ounces Nuke-City Easter egg radishes, sliced
4 ounces Nuke-City baby carrots, sliced
4 ounces Nuke-City Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, whole or halved
1 cucumber, sliced
Salad dressing of choice
Makes 6 servings
Sauteed Swiss Chard with Apple, Bacon and Onion
Our favorite way to prepare chard at home is a simple saute as a side dish.
3 slices bacon, diced
1 small yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 gala apple, diced
1 (5-ounce) bag Nuke-City rainbow chard
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
Place a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add bacon and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Remove bacon from pan with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add onion to the pan and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in apple. Cut stems of chard underneath the leaf and slice; chop leaves. Stir stems and leaves into skillet along with bacon, salt and pepper. Add 2 tablespoons of water; cover skillet and cook, stirring frequently, until chard is tender, about 8 more minutes.
Makes 4 servings
Amarillo residents have been planting backyard gardens since the city was founded. But Danny Melius has gone a step further. He grows food commercially within the city limits—and he does it almost year-round.
A former software quality assurance analyst and developer, Melius turned to farming full-time in 2016 after his employer, Hastings, closed its doors. Today he manages two farm locations inside the Amarillo city limits.
One is a partnership with Square Mile Community Development along historic Route 66 in the San Jacinto neighborhood. There, in what was once a parking lot, Melius manages around 7,000 square feet of gardens.
Nuke City Veg also has a plot of land in the Vineyards of Amarillo development on the north side of town, where Melius grows produce in 68 50-foot beds. Using natural practices and innovative garden tunnels and shades, he’s able to extend his growing season deep into the winter months.