Vegetable Gardening

2017 is the Year of the Brassica

2017 has been named the Year of the Brassica by the National Garden Bureau. The genera Brassica reminds me of a family I know with thirteen children. How do they keep track of them all? When I started brushing up on the Brassica family, I realized I had forgotten about a couple of its children.

Vegetables in the Brassica family include bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, radishes, rutabagas and turnips. They all provide powerful punches of nutrition.

Most are cool-season vegetables and are best planted in early spring, or late summer for fall harvesting. Light frosts are not only tolerated, the flavor of some brassicas is enhanced in cooler weather. Most have shallow root systems and are vulnerable to drought stress. Practicing crop rotation is especially important with brassicas. Never grow them in the same space they occupied the year before.

The members of the Brassica family invited to my dinner table are broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi and radishes. Feel free to invite Brussels sprouts, rutabagas and turnips to yours.

Harvest broccoli when the florets are just beginning to relax.

Broccoli

When you think of broccoli, you probably picture the large-headed varieties with clustered florets. Did you know the stalks are also yummy? Peeled, they taste similar to a kohlrabi.

Start broccoli seeds indoors six weeks before the last frost. When seedlings are four weeks old, plant them outside in a location that receives at least 6 hours of sun every day and in well-drained soil rich with organic matter. Best growth occurs when the soil has consistent moisture and abundant amounts of nitrogen and calcium. If Mother Nature doesn’t provide an inch of rainfall each week, give plants additional water.

Space plants 18 inches apart in the garden. Let them snuggle a little closer in containers. Harvest broccoli when the florets are mostly tight but just beginning to relax. Keep watering and most varieties will produce side shoots with smaller heads.

The secret to growing cabbages is to provide consistent care.

Cabbage

Cabbage is a versatile vegetable. It can be eaten fresh in salads, as coleslaw at a summer picnic, in winter soups and stews, in stir fries, in corned beef and cabbage on St. Patty’s Day, or eaten my favorite way – simply cut in wedges and eaten fresh.

There are varieties in white, green, blue, red and purple and in varied forms. Like broccoli, they require heavily amended well-drained soil and reliable moisture – at least an inch of water per week. Fertilize with fish emulsion when they begin developing leaves and again when heads start forming. A balanced, slow-release fertilizer can also be worked into the soil before planting.

Set small transplants in the garden or containers a few weeks before the last frost. Space them 12 to 24 inches apart depending on the variety. The secret to growing cabbages is to provide consistent care. Stressed plants may not be able to recover.

Kids may be more likely to try purple cauliflower. It’s fun!

Cauliflower

Have you ever tried purple cauliflower? How about orange or green cauliflower? They taste similar to white types but are a lot more fun, especially for kids.

Cauliflower grows best in cool temperatures. Heat stress can cause premature heading (the plant makes tiny heads). A few weeks before the last frost date, space transplants about 18 inches apart in the garden, closer in containers. Have some sheets or row covers available to cover plants if frost is expected. Keep the soil consistently moist by mulching.

Choose a location with full sun and prepare the garden before planting. Mix blood meal, cottonseed meal or composted manure in moist, well-drained soil. At least an inch of water each week is necessary for best growth. Moderation is the key – cauliflower is sensitive to both over and under watering.

When cauliflower heads are beginning to form, lift and secure leaves up and over each head to blanch them, keeping them white and tender. Some varieties are considered self-blanching, but be prepared to lend a hand if the leaves aren’t doing their job.

Harvest heads when they are 6 inches in diameter. Continue watering plants and most will grow more, but smaller florets.

The youngest leaves of kale are the most tender.

Kale

Kale is the oldest member of the Brassica family, dating back to around 2,000 B.C.

One of the most nutrient dense foods, kale is easy to grow. There are curly- and smooth-leaf varieties in green, blue-green and purple. Some folks steam it; others stir fry it. Use baby leaves in salads. It can be used in omelets and casseroles. I prefer it with ribs removed, torn into small pieces, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and baked into kale chips.

Sow seeds directly in the garden 2 to 4 weeks before the last frost date or start them inside up to 8 weeks before the last expected frost. Transplant them outside as early as a month before the last frost. Cover plants in frosty weather. Kale grows best in full sun but will produce satisfactorily in part shade, too. Space transplants 18 to 24 inches apart in rich well-drained soil. The most tender leaves are produced in fertile, dependably moist soil.

Kale is an ideal choice to combine in container plantings with flowering annuals where its foliage contributes delightful color and texture.

I think a kohlrabi is best eaten like an apple, but peel away the outside first.

Kohlrabi

Bite into a crunchy kohlrabi freshly harvested from the garden – dee. lish. us! The kohlrabi is my favorite member of the Brassica family, and I wouldn’t grow a vegetable garden without them. Some describe their taste as that of a mild turnip or the blending of cabbage and broccoli. I think their flavor is fresh and green and so tasty.

Sow seeds in the sunny garden a few weeks before the last frost date in amendment-rich, well-drained soil. Fertilize with a balanced, slow-release fertilizer when planting and feed again when plants begin to form heads. As seedlings emerge, thin them to at least 6 inches apart – more if they are seeds of a giant variety. Transplants can be started indoors for a super early crop.

Keep plants evenly moist for the best and fastest growth. Consistent moisture keeps the center of bulbs from getting pithy. It has been the rule to harvest them while still small – up to 3 inches in diameter. But now there are varieties that produce giant heads that stay delicious all the way to their centers as they grow nearly as large as a basketball.

Chopped into sticks or slices, kohlrabi is delicious in salads or with dips. Some folks enjoy them cooked until just tender. I prefer peeling away the tough outer covering and eating a kohlrabi like an apple.

Some experts discourage growing kohlrabi in containers. I have grown them in large pots and earth boxes for years with delicious success.

Radishes germinate quickly and are ready to harvest in less than a month.

Radishes

Planting radish seeds is a great garden project with children. Radishes germinate quickly – positive and quick reinforcement for impatient gardeners. Kids can pick radishes to eat just a few weeks after sowing.

Plant seeds an inch apart directly in soil light, well-drained soil 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date. Thin seedlings so they are growing 2 to 3 inches apart. Make small successive plantings every week or so for a steady supply until the temperatures warm.

Keep plants consistently moist for best flavor and texture, but soil too wet will cause radishes to split. Harvest them as soon as they are ready to add color and crunch to salads, or just pop them in your mouth as a snack. What self-respecting veggie tray would be without a section of radishes?

The most difficult part of growing radishes may be selecting which variety to grow. There are varieties in many shapes – cute little round ones and others that reach as deep as 18 inches into the soil – and colors from white to bright red and rose to purple.

Celebrate the Year of the Brassica by growing some (or all) of these in your garden. Garden with me!

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