The Brassica Family
Spring is coming, and with it, our triumphant return to the garden. It’s easy to get impatient at this time of year, but today let’s pass the time by talking about that group of cold-hardy plants that we all know and love: brassicas. Specifically, let’s look at seven members of the Brassica oleracea clan: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale and kohlrabi.
It’s easy to love brassicas. They grow well in our northern climate; they’re resistant to frost; and they’re packed with nutrition. Even if they’re occasionally overlooked in favor of vegetables like tomatoes and beans, there are still plenty of reasons to add brassicas to your garden.
Planting specifications will depend on which brassica you’re growing, but as a family they like fertile, well-drained soil with a pH in the range of 6.0 to 7.0. Remember to practice crop rotation and avoid planting brassica family members in the same place in successive years. Pests can definitely be problematic for brassicas (ask me how I know this), including cabbage worms, beetles, aphids and more. Good news: floating row covers can minimize pest damage.
How about sun? Full sun is acceptable for kale, kohlrabi and Brussels sprouts, but not so great for broccoli, which is notoriously fond of bolting as temperatures warm in summer. Cauliflower likes a bit of light shade.
Even though brassicas are cold-hardy, they aren’t quick growing. You’ll most likely want to begin your seeds indoors in late March or early April to give them a jumpstart before transplanting outdoors in May.
So, which brassicas will you plant? Kohlrabi, with its octopus-like appearance and surprising versatility, is a superstar in the kitchen. Or maybe you like the streamlined ease of growing kale, while also appreciating its incredible hardiness and unbelievable nutrients. Perhaps you’re on Team Broccoli and your mouth is watering for some homemade broccoli soup. Maybe you have plenty of patience and want to put it to use growing Brussels sprouts, which take a long time but are well worth the wait. Then again, maybe you want to add a taste of the South to your northern garden, in which case I will point you toward collard greens. Or you could be in the mood for coleslaw or sauerkraut, making cabbage your best bet. And don’t forget cauliflower with its snowy beauty and abundant usefulness in the kitchen. Or grow some of each type.
When harvest comes, the brassica family will invariably brighten your meals with their hearty flavors and impressive nutrients. The sky’s the limit in terms of tasty ways to serve these vegetables, but roasting is always a flavor-packed option. You can stir fry them, steam them or sauté them; or put them to splendid use in all manner of soups. Try your brassicas in gratins or casseroles, or serve with pastas or in salads.
So, even if we can’t head out to the garden quite yet, why not start some brassica seeds indoors this spring? You’ll be harvesting plenty of hardy (and hearty!) vegetables in no time.
Wisconsin-based Samantha Johnson is the author of several books, including Garden DIY, (CompanionHouse Books, 2020). Visit her online portfolio at http://samanthajohnson.contently.com.
CLASSIC BROCCOLI CHEESE SOUP
4 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth (low sodium is OK)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ tsp black pepper
Pinch of nutmeg and paprika (optional)
3 cups broccoli florets (about 1 head, chopped)
1 large carrot, grated
1½ cups half-and-half, whole milk or cream
6 ounces grated cheese, such as cheddar or fontina
Melt butter in a pot over medium heat. Add onion and cook until softened. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute. Add flour and whisk until the flour begins to turn golden, about a minute. Add the broth, broccoli florets, carrots and seasoning. Simmer for 15 minutes or until the broccoli and carrots are cooked through. Stir in half-and-half and cheese and simmer for another minute. Enjoy!