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It was too cold to garden today; sun out but an icy wind. So I thought I’d write about my favourite form of vegetable – the Brassica. Particularly as, in southern Australia at least, they are the current bountiful centrepiece for any winter vegetable garden. There should be a sonnet penned to the Brassica.

Not only do I love to eat Brassicas (full name Brassica oleracea) – all of them – but they are beautiful to look at in a garden, relatively easy to grow and most of them can provide food for between 4-6 months. Both my kids eat all kinds of Brassicas, broccoli in particular, which my daughter Ruby, when a toddler, called ‘little trees’. It was joy to a parent’s ears to hear the request, “More little trees please’.

Growing Brassicas

Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale

I have always grown lots of broccoli, for the reason that I love it and the kids love it. Since moving here, and having the luxury of space to stretch my planting quantities and varieties, I’ve grown Russian and regular kale (lots of it), cauliflower, I’m doing red cabbage this year, and pak choi or bok choi, alongside lots and lots of broccoli.

Robynann's bok choi

My neighbour, Robynann’s bok choi, loving it in the old laundry tub.

Here’s a few things I have learnt about growing Brassicas over the last 25 years, by no means definitive:

  • They thrive in cow manure, perhaps with a bit of chicken thrown in as well. I pretty much grow directly into cow manure these days, along with my own compost. Why I have developed this one-eyed commitment to cow manure will be the subject of another post.
  • I only attempt to grow Brassicas in winter because you don’t have to tackle the cabbage moth issue. Broccoli (and I imagine cauliflower is the same) is one of the most porous vegetables, and it is impossible to wash the pesticides out of it. Commercial broccoli grown all year round will be covered in pesticides (in summer, only ever eat homegrown or certified organic broccoli). I don’t even like using Derris dust for this reason, even though it is considered reasonably benign. Hence, as the much-despised cabbage moth dies off in winter, that’s when I grow Brassicas.
  • Green Dragon is by far my favourite variety of broccoli. Smallish heads, sweet, prolific and taste, well, something along the lines of ‘the most amazing broccoli you’ve ever eaten’. I also like dragons. Green Dragon broccoli
  • Nearly all Brassicas are the magic puddings of the vegetable world. When you cut a head of broccoli, cut it fairly high up on the stem, towards the head. With a knife, score a cross in the top of the stem left on the plant. This will encourage the continued growth of what I call ‘side broccoli’, some of which can grow almost as big as the original head, given the right conditions, for many months.
  • As above, just picking the leaves as you need them from kale and pak or bok choi, rather than picking the whole plant, means you’ll have green veges from the garden up until at least mid-spring.
  • Russian kale is, in my opinion, far nicer than the regular kale. I am now on my third generation of propagated Russian kale, originally sourced from seedlings from Ceres.
  • The mini white cauliflowers are my personal preference; again, a small head, but perfectly white and sweet and beautiful (see picture at the end of the post).
  • Plant seedlings in late April/May in the southern states of Australia (although up until late June is fine, but your crop will be later), the opposite if attempting them in the northern states (I’d like to hear from Brassica growers from up north, or from elsewhere around the globe).
  • Propagate seeds from March onwards in the southern states, ensuring they are kept damp and sheltered from the western sun. From April onwards, a hot house is ideal.
  • Let at least a couple of your Brassicas (a few of each sort) go to seed and collect the seeds for propagation the following year.

Kale, rocket, broccoli in flower

Late spring 2012, with Russian kale still going strong, and broccoli and rocket in flower. I saved the seeds from these and propagated for this year’s crop.

All Brassicas are powerful antioxidants; they are, in popular parlance, ‘superfoods’. They can be eaten raw, steamed, sauteed, added to soups or as the subject of a soup; Stefan’s broccoli pasta is now the meal I could easily eat every night of the week (recipe available here).

As you can see, from the general gushiness of the above, I can’t praise the Brassica more highly. It’s one of the many reasons I enjoy winter; why, in fact, I celebrate winter. Without the cold we can’t have many things, and healthy, homegrown, caterpillar-free Brassicas are worth every moment of shivering.

Mini white cauliflower

Mini White Cauliflower & Red Cabbage

Note: the feature image for this post is from my neighbour, Robynann’s garden. The nasturtiums growing through the broccoli are an artwork unto themselves.

Try Stefan’s Broccoli Pasta Recipe – it’s my all time favourite meal.

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