Of cabbages and kings….
Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) has always been one of my favorite authors, and cabbages and other cole crops nearly always have their place in a kitchen garden.
Where do we get the word ‘cole’, as it refers to cabbages and other members of the cruciferous, or brassica, family? I wish it were as simple as a variation on ‘cold crops’, since most of them prefer growing in cooler weather, but that would be a fabrication. The word ‘cole’ actually comes to us from a Latin word for ‘stem’. How they decided that the word “stem’ has anything to do with a head of cabbage is beyond me, but there it is.
The cabbage family includes broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, horseradish, Napa/Chinese cabbage, collards, turnips, rutabagas, Brussels sprouts, watercress, kale, radishes, bok choy, and mustard. Rapeseed (canola) is also a member of this family. The old Latin name, Cruciferae, is going out of favor and is being replaced with Brassicaceae, due to more accurate genetic information. Some scientists include capers in this family, but that particular DNA is still being sorted out.
Cabbage family stems and other parts
Also known as the mustard family, this group of plants has flowers with 4 petals and 4 sepals, arranged in what looks like a letter “H” or a cross (hence the old name, cruciferae). They also have 6 stamens, usually 2 short ones and 4 longer ones. These plants have a waxy surface (cuticle) that helps them retain water and a characteristic sulfur-like smell.
Growing cole crops
Cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower take up a fair bit of room in the garden, but they require very little of the gardener, once they are established. Here, in the Bay Area, one crop can be started in mid- to late-winter, for a spring harvest, and then a second crop can sometimes be started in late summer to early autumn, for a winter harvest. Mustard and canola both make excellent cover crops.
Many of these plants are biennial, which means it usually takes two years to complete their lifecycle. Our summer heat is strong enough to cause plants in the cabbage family to go to seed early, or bolt. Often, plants do not taste as good once bolting begins.
Stresses caused by too much cold, too much heat, not enough food, water stress, pest or disease damage, or mechanical injury can cause a condition called ‘buttoning’. Buttoning refers to the way all cole crops, except cabbage, produce smaller than normal heads in response to stress.
Cabbage family pests and diseases
Many moth and butterfly species use members of the cabbage family as food, including cabbage loopers, cabbage maggots, imported cabbageworms, diamondback moths, and inchworms. Some of these pests are developing resistance to commonly used pesticides, but I’ve taught my dogs to chase them away, and I use row covers. Other common cole crop pests include cabbage aphids, armyworms, bagrada bugs, wooly aphids, root maggots, millipedes, flea beetles, and cutworms. Voles can also cause problems. Bt and neem oil are effective organic controls, but not against voles. Cole crop diseases include ringspot, clubroot, blackleg, verticillium wilt, bacterial leafspot, downy mildews, and phytophthora root rot. Crop rotation is your best method of disease prevention.
Research has shown that eating fresh, steamed, or sautéed (not boiled) brassicas may reduce many types of cancer, so plant and eat your vegies!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!