The Cabbage Family

Brassicas - The Cabbage Family

The brassicas are the cabbage family of plants.   This family includes cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, mustard, swedes, turnips, rape, kohl rabi, cress, pak choi and many other familiar vegetables.  Nutritionally they are very important to humanity and have been grown and modified to our needs since time immemorial.


These plants seem to have originated in fairly inhospitable environments close to the coast.  They have survived by storing nutrition over winter and are often biennial.   We have to provide suitable conditions in the garden and then we can harvest that nutrition.  This means that we are sowing the plants in spring and early summer and harvesting in winter.

Brassicas like limey soil (high pH/low acidity).  In upland Devon the underlying geology and relatively high rainfall will tend to create an acid soil.  This means that you could consider liming your soil before the brassica crop.  It is important to remember that some crops, such as potatoes, prefer an acid soil so don't lime the whole garden at once.  Brassicas also like a deep, rich soil with plenty of organic matter to supply nitrogen.   Cauliflowers and the bigger cabbages are probably the most demanding in this respect and I tend to avoid growing them because a half formed cauli or cabbage head is not much use.  Broccoli and kale are much easier.  Generally I also don't grow Brussels sprouts because they take so long and people only eat them Christmas Day.


The seeds of brassicas are viable for a long time and easy to germinate.  They can be sown in seed trays, modules or seed beds.  Nearly all the leafy (not root brassicas) are sown this way and transplanted once or twice into their final location.  They should be transplanted into deep, firm soil and watered well in.   It needs some effort and skill to keep them growing well for months on end. 


The gardening texts will tell you all about the diseases of the cabbage family.   Practising crop rotation is an obvious way to reduce these problems.  I have problems with flea beetles and slugs when the plants are small but my main worries are cabbage white butterflies and pigeons.  I don't really have any way to keep the butterflies off and I rely on some manual removal of the caterpillar eggs to keep the damage down.  If your plants are healthy they can usually survive a caterpillar attack.  Pigeons can severely damage your plants.  In summer they seem to like cabbage leaf for breakfast, before I get up.   In the winter if the weather gets severe they can decimate a crop.  They have to be physically kept off.

My priority is to have kale and broccoli in early spring. They always seem like healthy foods for the dim, dark days of the post Christmas detox.   Unfortunately many people seem to have bad memories of overcooked cabbage from their childhood and now avoid these greens.  I like to quickly microwave some kale and then lightly fry it in soy sauce.  The fleshy stems of plants like pak choi are excellent in stir-fries.


 Preservation, Pickling, Sauerkraut

It can be frustrating to see a glut of homegrown good wasted.  Food preservation is an important skill.   It is tempting to shove the excess harvest into the freezer but this is a relatively unsustainable method of preservation, since it involves the use of energy and other resources.  On the other hand low-tech methods such as drying may result in loss of nutrients.

Fermentation is receiving much interest at present as a low carbon (sustainable) form of preservation.  Fermentation is a form of pre-digestion that makes vitamins and minerals in foods more accessible to our own digestive system.  The fermented foods are also 'pro-biotic' in that they carry useful microbes into our digestive system.

Fermented cabbage or sauerkraut is well-known in many forms in Eastern Europe.  This method of preserving a food high in vitamin C is important in areas that have harsh winters.

I've got to have a go at this, just as soon as I find a suitable container.

Here are a couple of youtube tutorials;

Long sauerkraut tutorial - nice people

Short sauerkraut tutorial - annoying people

Fermented cabbage is fine but I draw the line at surströmming, a form of pickled herring that has such a strong smell that it is 'ordinarily eaten outdoors'.