When we think about growing vegetables, crops like tomatoes, zucchini and green beans are probably the first that come to mind. They grow beautifully during the heat of the summer.
But there is a wealth of veggies that kick off the growing season and thrive in our cooler, early spring temperatures.
Examples of cool-season crops are peas, onions, carrots, spinach, Swiss chard, beets, parsnips and lettuce.
As if that wasn’t enough, the cabbage family encompasses a wide variety of popular vegetables that are also grown early in the season: broccoli, turnips, radishes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi and, of course, cabbage.
Last year, I grew Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage and was delighted with the results. This variety is unique in that it produces small, cone-shaped heads that are as delicious as they are attractive. You can bet they’ll be gracing my garden once again this year.
I’ll also be growing kohlrabi for the first time. The plants have large, fleshy stems that grow on the soil surface. The stems can be harvested once they are 2 inches or larger in diameter and can be eaten raw or cooked. They can even be stored in a root cellar over the winter.
I’m growing a variety called Crispy Colors Duo, a mix of purple and green kohlrabi, which I’m hoping will be both tasty and colorful. The seeds should be sown directly in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked, rather than being started indoors.
Other cabbage family crops that should be sown right into the garden are radishes, rutabagas and turnips. The rest should be started indoors four to six weeks before the last frost.
Even though Brussels sprouts like cooler conditions, I recently learned something interesting about growing them.
According to national garden columnist and radio host Mike McGrath, the plants shouldn’t even be started indoors until May. That’s because they need the cooler temperatures of the fall to develop tight, cabbage-shaped sprouts.
He finds they are at their tastiest after they go through some frosts and that the cold doesn’t affect the plants in the least. He recommends setting the plants out in the garden in late June or early July. This means the plants wouldn’t start producing the Brussels sprouts until late September. Wouldn’t it be fun to harvest a crop during the colder months of the year?
Most members of the cabbage family are susceptible to two annoying insects: aphids and green inchworms known as cabbage loopers. Once I learned how to deal with them organically, I’m willing to reserve space in my garden for this family of vegetables.
The easiest way to keep both insects off the plants is to cover them with a floating row cover. This lightweight, woven fabric lets in light, air and moisture but acts as an insect barrier. The fabric should be draped over the bed and the edges weighted down with bricks or boards.
If floating row covers aren’t for you, there are some alternatives. Organically produced insecticidal soaps specifically formulated for aphids work well. A strong spray of water from the hose will also dislodge the little stinkers from plants.
Cabbage loopers are particularly susceptible to Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt for short. This is a strain of bacteria that is safe for humans but deadly to the larval stage of most insects. It’s a concentrated liquid that you dilute with water and spray onto the foliage if you’ve spotted holes in the leaves.
Floating row covers, insecticidal soaps and Bt can be found at local garden centers or online.