The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Posts tagged ‘brassicas’

Blushing cabbages

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

young cabbage plant

A very young cabbage plant in June

I think cabbages are beautiful. However, I was once showing someone around the garden, when I gushed, “Oh – over here! You’ve just got to see these GORGEOUS cabbages!” and I suddenly realized that there are some people in the world who don’t equate beauty with cabbages.

young cabbage plant

Anyway, I received some very special cabbage seed to trial this season from Ottawa Gardener of The Veggie Patch Reimagined. She crossed Mammoth Red Rock with San Michele (San Michele is one of my favorites – a large red-tinged savoy) and the result is a superb cabbage, seemingly a smack-in-the-middle blend of its two parents. It has more red/purple color than San Michele and the texture is more delicate than Mammoth Red Rock: the leaves are lightly savoyed (puckered). I really love the texture – very brittle, tender and crunchy – quite delicious raw.

bursting cabbage

After 7 inches of rain in one day

A couple of weeks ago Hurricane Irene dumped about 7 inches of rain on us in 24 hours. The earliest-set-out cabbage’s response was to burst open (I was not surprised), so I harvested it for a big batch of kimchee, and stuffing and salad. The head weighed over 6#, and was 9.5 inches across.

The harvested head

The harvested head

Cut up with some apples for kimchee

There is not much color or other variation among the 7 plants I am trialing so far – I find it interesting that they’re all quite uniform (and I must say consistently beautiful) in this first generation. Thanks Ottawa Gardener – really nice work!

How to eat more kale – really!

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

I got excited a few years ago when I started seeing the slogan “Eat more kale” on t-shirts and bumper stickers. I thought, “How cool is that? There are people out there promoting this amazing brassica.” Anyway, the slogan went from a farmers market promotion to becoming a fashion statement (as much as we do fashion statements in Vermont). But, I don’t think most gardeners are aware of how much this denizen of the frozen wastes has to offer for nearly year round sustenance.

early spring kale

Over-wintered volunteer Siberian-type kale in early May

Kale is superbly well adapted for serious food production in a cold climate garden. I have a naturalized population of Siberian-types and Russian Red-types that originally came from Peters Seeds’ breeding program, over ten years ago (Peters’ The Gulag 95 and Winter Red). By naturalized, I mean that I don’t have to sow it (though I sometimes do) because the plants are allowed to bolt, and reseed themselves. They are very hardy. Only plants that survive the winter here totally unprotected become seed parents for me: no winter mulch, no plastic, no cold frames. I have nothing against the use of season extension devices; but, for breeding purposes, and because of a lazy and miserly streak, I don’t use them. Yes, it’s brutal, but it’s my garden and I don’t want wimps for seed parents.

Kale is biennial, so the plants that survive the winter are a great source of spring salad greens. The new growth in the cool spring weather is tender and sweet. Above is a winter survivor of the Gulag 95 strain, in early May, only a few weeks after it emerged from deep snow.

early spring kale

August 2, volunteers in the path.

I stagger the bloom time to keep the two strains separate for seed production. When the type that I want to get seed from starts blooming, we pick and eat the buds of the other type (think broccoli raab) until the first is done blooming. Depending on the conditions and numbers of plants, I can usually get decent seed from both strains in the same season. There needs to be a good population, so that you can harvest what greens you need without denuding and weakening parent plants, and also to have enough parents for pollination. I find I can get good pollination with a minumum of six parent plants, but closer to twelve is better. The bolting plants do take up a fair amount of garden space, and need to be staked – the Gulag strain has seed stalks 5-6 feet tall, and lots of them.

early spring kale

Same plants October 20, ready for winter.

The problem with garden volunteers is that they frequently pop up in inconvenient places, like the middle of a walkway. Kale volunteers can be easily transplanted, but some of my best plants have been those that popped up vigorously at the very edge of a bed, and for various reasons, I chose to leave them there and work around them, even though it’s a nuisance to have them blocking a walkway.

In the photos above and at right, you can see some fine specimens that popped up between two beds. They did bully the peas on the right somewhat, but not too badly – the peas had a good head start on them.

I digress, so, back to seed harvesting. I don’t like to leave the seed pods too long in the garden, as they are very apt to get moldy and/or shatter. Some shattering is inevitable, and OK, after all, that’s where all those spontaneous little kale plants come from. I have found that I can harvest the best quality seed by cutting the seed stalks when they are still green, as soon as the top pods have filled out, see photo below.

kale seed pods

I cut the stalks and lay them onto an old bed sheet to dry on a rack in our breezeway. This is where those crappy polyester bed linens are really great – I watch for them at garage sales. Once the pods are crunchy dry, I thresh them in the bed sheet, and bottle them.

The process of saving kale seed produces an embarassment of riches if all you want is seed to plant, assuming you have good vigorous seed parents. Some years ago when broccoli seed started to be touted for sprouts as a super-health food, I found myself staring at pint and quart canning jars full of kale and pak choi seed, and the light bulb flashed in my brain. So I’m here to tell you, yes, kale seed makes excellent, delicious sprouts. I have no doubt that they have a nutritional analysis equal to or better than broccoli sprouts, and they’re easy for a home gardener to grow and process. Last time I checked, broccoli seed for sprouting was going for $38 a pound at our local co-op. There’s definitely potential for a local commercial crop here!

kale seedskale sprouts

Overwintering cabbage

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

I worry about brassicas and onions. They are such important plants, and very few seed savers are working with them. The rate that the commercially available open pollinated varieties are disappearing is really scary. Brassicas and onions can be pretty fussy to grow seed and maintain purity, so it’s not hard to figure out why seed savers grow lots of tomato and bean varieties, but very few cabbages for seed.

I have a couple of good strains of kale I’ve been working with for about 10 years, and have had some success growing broccoli seed, though not consistently. I haven’t had any success with growing seed from heading cabbage – I can’t seem to maintain the plants in a root cellar over winter in good enough condition to get healthy seed the next year. So, I have had a strong interest in finding a hardy enough heading cabbage to overwinter here in the garden. The bummer is, I’ve finally found one, and now I can’t find a source for the seed in the US or Canada. The most recent edition of The Garden Seed Inventory has it on the no longer commercially available list. Yet, there seem to be plenty of commercial offerings for this variety in the UK.

cabbage July 2007

Cabbage Offenham July 2007. It was the only seedling that survived the first winter from an in situ sowing August 2006. The plant yielded one nice, sweet, medium sized conical head in October 2007. (Sorry, I forgot to take a photo of it.) The heads have a strong resemblance to Early Jersey Wakefield, though Offenham plants are larger framed.

cabbage July 2008

July 2008, the plant had survived a second Vermont winter with no protection. I was impressed. I then expected it to bolt in 2008, but low and behold, it made 5 or 6 lovely little pointed heads this September and October, and it is continuing to throw shoots up from the roots and stalks.

cabbage Sept 2008cabbage multi head detail

Over wintering cabbages are also called spring cabbages. In warmer climates than ours, they are sown in August for heads in the late spring, and the smaller heads cut again in the fall. So, I’m wondering if I hadn’t cut the first head (in Sept. 2007) if it might have sent up a seed stalk last spring. It’s kind of a moot point because there’s only the one plant. (I like to have at least 6 plants for brassica olearica seed production). One way or another, I’ll have to find some more Offenham seed to plant next August…