A blessing of Brassicas

Brassicae, a genus of Cruciferae (the ancient mustard family), is a cornucopia containing more than 100 species. These include kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, turnips and mustard (commonly called “cole” crops). Ivy Rose, my garden-prodigy granddaughter, says Brassicas taught her that nature is all about diversity. But most of the species grown for food are alike in their preference for cool temperatures (Ivy Rose calls them “cold crops”) and their need for plenty of space.

Their size limits the number of Brassicas I grow in my small home garden. And because they’re in season between November and March, when the light in my cove is minimal, I buy large quantities of cole veggies during the winter. So by the time spring arrives, I’m eager for the taste of other greens — like lettuce and spinach. Still, homegrown Brassicas are so scrumptious, healthful, hardy and cheap, I can’t resist planting a bed or two — kales, komatsuna and broccoli — as early in March as the weather allows in my eco-niche 2,500 feet up in the Southern Appalachians. During cold snaps, I protect them with floating row covers.

Child plant-historian Ivy Rose informs me that, because of its high nutritional value, kale has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years, both as fodder and as food. In New Zealand, sheep graze on thousands of acres of it. Like all produce, kale is most nutritionally potent when harvested, still vibrant with life, from an organic home garden — as locally grown as you can get. Loaded with vitamins A and C and rich in minerals like iron, zinc and magnesium, it’s perfect for heading off spring colds.

My two favorite kale varieties are Blue Scotch Curled (the dwarf kind, to save space) and heirloom Black Tuscan. Ivy Rose prefers the nickname “dinosaur kale” for this variety, derived from the appearance of its 2-foot-tall, black-green foliage (which fans out from the plant like palm leaves, accounting for yet another popular name seen in seed catalogs — Tuscan Palm).

Both of these kales are delicious either raw or cooked. I chop big leaves and steam them briefly in just enough water to keep them from sticking, or sautee them in a little oil with thinly sliced garden scallions. I like mine splashed with balsamic vinegar. Ivy Rose, who makes sour faces at the thought of sour tastes, prefers a dab of butter, but she likes the raw, young leaves best in salad mixes.

Kales have a wild taste, and, like wild plants, they’ll flourish in rougher, stonier soils. I often plant them in a bed I’ve neglected to prepare carefully in the fall. I broadcast half of a 4-by-8 bed with Blue Scotch and the other half with Black Tuscan, pat a quarter-inch of compost or soft soil over the tiny seeds, and keep the bed moist until they germinate (in one to two weeks). When the plants get big enough to crowd one another, I start thinning, using the leaves in salads, until four or five of each kind remain. To keep them producing, I harvest only the outer leaves of these remaining plants. And since warm soil rather than warm air is what causes Brassica greens to bolt, their roots need to stay moist and cool, so I mulch them with hay. Every few weeks, I push back the mulch and give them a shot of organic fertilizer. They take about six weeks to mature, and bugs ignore them. I don’t try to keep them going all summer, because I need the bed space.

Komatsuna, or spinach mustard (which is called “spinach” only because of the shape of its leaves), is another great spring crop for a small, child-friendly garden like mine. Regular mustard greens are too hot for most young palates, but komatsuna’s zing is sweetly mellow. Ivy Rose calls it a “fast food,” because it germinates so quickly and is ready to start harvesting in three weeks, when the delicious, calcium- and vitamin-rich leaves are about 3 inches long. It’s cold-hardy, bolt-resistant and pest-free. I grow and cook it just like kale, planting a new patch every two weeks and harvesting it all summer.

Broccoli is such a space hog, I grow only four to six plants — for their beauty and awesome nutritional value. A protector of cells, broccoli is a supreme anti-cancer veggie. It’s a high-fiber food and one of the richest vegetable sources of calcium and vitamin C. Still, after a few frustrating attempts, I stopped trying to grow broccoli until I discovered how to protect it from cabbage worms by hedging it with pots of mint (dubbed “guardian-angel herbs” by Ivy Rose after she’d observed delicate, white cabbage moths, casting about for a place to lay their eggs, flutter right over the broccolis and their aromatic companions).

Happily, my peppermint patch has plenty of 3-inch plants in March, when I transplant healthy, nursery-grown broccoli seedlings into a fall-prepared bed full of worms and rich, well-drained soil. I buy Packman or Premium Crop seedlings — already hardened off but not pot-bound, which reduces yields and head size (as will too much competition from weeds or exposure to extreme cold in the seedling stage, too much nitrogen, insect damage, or too little water during head development).

Before I transplant, I mix wood ashes into the soil, which prevents disease, repels slugs and raises the soil pH. Broccoli likes a “sweet soil” (about 7.2). I space the plants about 2 feet apart, which I’ve found helps produce larger heads. When the broccolis are well established, they get a side dressing of a good organic fertilizer and another dose a month later. Worm castings are my only manure. Shallow-rooted broccoli needs lots of sun and constant moisture to grow the enormous lower leaves that store the nutrients needed to produce big heads. I mulch and water in the morning, when photosynthesis is at its peak.

Ivy Rose keeps the mint pots watered and adjusts their placement as the broccolis grow. She also keeps an eye on the maturing heads to make sure we harvest them before they flower. Cutting early brings the added benefit of giving us more side sprouts. I never cook fresh broccoli florets; instead, I use them raw in salads (broken up small), which greatly stretches our small, homegrown harvest — and probably its nutritional value. I steam the stalks and blend them into soups.

For little effort and money, kale, komatsuna and broccoli provide what Ivy Rose calls a “blessing of Brassicas” from late spring on into summer. And, because Brassica blossoms attract beneficial insects, we always encourage some of our kale and komatsuna plants to produce their small, yellow flowers, which grow in the shape of a cross (hence the family name — Cruciferae) for yet another blessing.

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