Brassica refers to a genus of plants in the mustard family, sometimes refered to as cole crops or cruciferous vegetables. A few examples are cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and broccoli. These crops are important sources of vitamin C, fiber, and other micronutrients that support good heatlth. The military gardens at Fort Ticonderoga in the 18th century included generous amounts of cabbage which could be readily eaten or stored for winter use. The vitamin C they contain helped prevent diseases such as scurvy that threatened the vitality of the troops. The soldiers were also known to cultivate mustard greens, turnips, rape seed, and cauliflower – all Brassicas.
These are cool-season crops, meaning they thrive in cooler weather – spring and fall – and are generally tolerant of frost. Kale and Brussels sprouts improve with the onset of cold weather and can even be harvested from under the snow. Gardeners must be vigilant about pests such as cabbage worm and mindful to rotate members of the Brassicacaea family, never planting them in the same location in two consecutive years.
I enjoy incorporating these delicious vegetables into ornamental gardens because they are beautiful too! In late fall they are at their best and can be appreciated twofold. Cabbages in light green, deep purple, and the blue-green savoy type add bold interest to a mixed border and make a colorful cole slaw. The ruffled leaves of kale work nicely with both annuals and perennials and will outlast them as fall turns to winter. Brussels sprouts make a bold backdrop for sunny marigolds or vivid calendula. This year the Children’s Garden featured deep orange nasturtiums mounded beneath the Brussels sprouts to hide their naked stalks. They are a perfect pairing!
Hybridization has produced interesting traits in cabbage and its cousins. Some examples are cauliflowers ‘Cheddar’ (orange), ‘Graffiti ‘(purple) and ‘Vitaverde’ (green); the purplish-red Brussels sprouts called ‘Falstaff’; lime green ‘Romanesco’ cauliflower with spiraled pinnacles pressing outward; ‘Dynamo’, a miniature blue-green, and ‘Red express’ cabbages; plus showy flowering kale ‘Peacock’, popular in autumn decorations. The unusual leaves of brassicas such as Lacinato or Dinosaur kale and Giant Japanese red mustard add nice color and texture to a garden scheme.
In celebration of the final harvest of fall, here’s to the beautiful brassicas that look great in the garden, add variety to comforting cold-weather foods, and are so good for us too!
Heidi teRiele Karkoski
Director of Horticulture