Why you should plant brassicas in your winter veggie garden
What’s a brassica, you ask? Well, you probably have one or two in your fridge right now.
Despite the strange sounding name, brassicas are easily recognisable vegetables from the mustard family of plants. Think broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and even turnips.
The beauty of brassicas is that they’re cold and frost-hardy, making them natural winter crops. They’re also delicious in wintry meals – more so when freshly picked from your own garden.
I always plant a few brassicas in my veggie patch when the cool weather hits and Tuscan kale is a favourite. For me, it’s an essential part of any winter crop, as it continues to provide throughout the whole season. The trick is to harvest the outer leaves as you need them, which in turn encourages the plant to keep producing new ones.
Fine strips of kale can go straight into your minestrone. Kale greens also work beautifully as a warm salad, wilted and served with caramelised onions, toasty croutons and generous shavings of parmesan on top.
Another leafy brassica I love growing is rapini, which features in the Italian-style meals that I grew up with. For cooking, I use the leaves, although the stems and young flower heads are also edible. Flavour-wise, rapini has a slightly bitter edge, so cook it in boiling water with some salt until tender, or in a skillet pan with olive oil, garlic and pancetta until crisp.
All brassicas are heavy feeders, best planted after growing legumes or other crops which can be used as green manure. I also recommend working the soil with nitrogen-rich fertiliser before planting your seedlings, whether you’ve earmarked the ground for broccoli (‘little trees’ as my son calls them), cauliflower or other varieties. This bit of extra work will be evident in the quality of your crop when it’s time to harvest.
One of the main challenges once you’ve got your seedlings planted is pests. Brassicas are well loved by my arch nemesis in the garden, the white cabbage moth. They also attract slugs, aphids and snails. So, you’ll have to plan your defense against these little guys. I always recommend using organic, natural approaches for pest control.
To stop cabbage moths, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. Firstly, you can try to fool them by companion planting with lots of white flowering plants or installing some butterfly-shaped mini ‘scarecrows’ made from white plastic cut-outs strung onto fishing line. This approach works because the moths are territorial and have poor eyesight, mistaking the decoys for other moths.
Another method is to plant sacrificial crops alongside your brassicas. Land cress (Barbarea vulgaris), for instance, is incredibly attractive to cabbage moths for their egg-laying, but contains substances in the leaf which are toxic to the caterpillars when they first feed. If none of these tactics work, visit your local nursery for some Dipel, an insecticide certified for use in organic gardening, or cover your crops with very fine netting.
A winter veggie patch would not be the same without a brassica or two. And in wintry meals, the flavour of homegrown cauliflower, kale and cabbage is by far superior to anything that you can buy. So, here are some tips to help you get planting!
1. Soil prep
All brassicas demand a well-drained, nitrogen-rich soil, so a bit of soil prep is in order before planting your winter crop of kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
2. Wiggle room
It’s a good idea to give brassicas a bit of room in your veggie patch. Plant seedlings between 40-60cm apart, depending on the variety. Cauliflowers and broccoli will need a bit more room than Brussels sprouts, rapini and kale.
3. Watering your winter crops
Brassicas are classic cool weather crops, so normal winter rainfall should take care of the needs of these veggies once they’re established. But water regularly when your crop is still at seedling stage, and continue until they mature. Also keep an eye on the moisture levels of your soil if it’s a relatively dry winter – under watering will lead to a poor-quality crop.
4. Pest alert!
Caterpillars are notorious pests on brassicas, and cabbage white moths are the main culprits. Look out for caterpillars on the leaves, or by the tell-tale holes and droppings they leave behind. In addition to the tactics above, try planting marigolds, or other plants from the Tagetes genus, within and around your crop as a natural pest deterrent.
5. Making the most of your crop
Many brassicas store well in the fridge. Cabbage and cauliflower will last up to two weeks; broccoli typically up to one week; and kale freezes for longer periods remarkably well. But home-grown veggies always taste best the day they’re picked, so try to make the most of your fresh crop.