Category Archives: Brassicas

The Summer Pivot

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted August 3, 2020

The end of July is the mid-point in the growing season: most of the early spring crops such as peas and lettuce are succumbing to the heat; the broccoli and cauliflower are just about done for now, along with the artichokes. The main summer produce, such as beans, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes are about to come into full production. All the gardening energy that previously went into raising and cultivating plants switches at this point to immediate plans for harvesting, consuming and preserving.

In August, when I’m working in the garden, the first thought each day is which vegetables need to be picked right now. Then, how am I going to prepare them once they’re in the kitchen, and finally how can I put up the inevitable surplus into storage jars or freezer packets. My first step is always dealing with the most fragile thing I just picked, usually the constantly flowering tips of the basil plants. Since the delicate leaves turn black very quickly, they go right into the blender along with garlic, olive oil and a little lemon juice, to make a base for either pesto (with Parmesan) or a pistou (without Parmesan) sauce. Both versions can be easily frozen in pint jars for a year-round supply of fresh basil. At this time of the year I keep a fresh jar in the fridge, mostly of a quick pistou, and put it on everything from toast to roasted eggplant.

My standard way of preparing crunchy vegetables such as snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower or green beans is to blanch and then immediately chill them in very cold water. They’re ready to serve cold along with a preferred dip, or just plain, since they have that touch of sweetness that comes with fresh picked produce. I think of them as vegetable antipasti, to be accompanied by a few olives and some cheese.

The snap peas are blanched for only a minute or two, the broccoli flowerets and green beans a bit longer. Wait for the green vegetables to turn a brighter, slightly iridescent green and then quickly remove to the cold water bath to stop the cooking process. A few ice cubes always helps, especially for the snap peas. Cauliflower needs to blanch a bit longer, to when it just starts to get soft, before transferring it to the cold bath.

The benefit of the blanch and chill process is that the vegetables are also now ready for freezing. Except for the snap peas, which are too delicate, any surplus can go straight into a freezer bag. To prevent ice build up make sure to dry the chilled produce off first and then squeeze out as much air from the filled bag. In the deep of winter the green or white bits of summer are welcome additions to soups or stews.

The flow of peppers has begun as well, led off by the sweet yellow Gypsy variety. Besides having them fresh, I also roast them for a Provençal style appetizer. Cut them in half, remove the seeds and stem, brush the skins with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and place skin side up on parchment paper in a roasting pan. I let them brown or char slightly under the broiler for a smokey flavor. I freeze the extras, stacked flat in quart bags for later use.

Currently in the garden, the Blue Lake pole beans have reached the top of the three parallel 8-foot high x 8-foot long trellises and are trying to go higher still. To keep the beans within reach, I am training the ever upward spiraling stems to go horizontally onto connecting rafter poles laid between the tops of the trellises. It is a daily task since the leaders, following the call of heliotrophism, constantly keep growing towards the sun. The aim is to have a leafy arbor between the trellises, with the later ripening beans from the upper parts of the plants hanging straight down overhead, making for easy picking, though it will take a step ladder to reach them. But the initial rush of beans will start lower down on the side walls of the trellises. An Arch of Beans.

The Wet and the Dry

By Peter Heffelfinger

June 29, 2020

 

The Wet

It certainly has been a wet month, with hard rains causing germination or mold problems. I am still waiting to see if my third planting of corn will sprout enough to fill in the bare soil in the rows from the first two disappointing seedings. As well, some of the 6-inch high onion plants developed mold around the bulbs and had to be discarded. But the peas soaked up all the rain and kept climbing up what seemed like an endless water spout.

Another sign of the high moisture level was the arrival of aphids, hiding in their usual beginning spot, deep inside the tender central growing tips of brassicas, in this case a bed of young Lacinato kale. An easy treatment is to spray the leaf cluster area with a light solution of detergent and water. The soap attacks the soft exoskeleton of the aphids that are sucking out the juices of the plant. Once aphids are present on a crop, keep a constant watch for their reappearance and keep spraying them at first sight. The soap solution does not affect the plant tissues, and is easily washed off, usually by the next garden watering. Check the site for several days to make sure there are no remaining aphids present, keep an eye out for any re-occurrence, and have the soap spray bottle at hand.

Aphids often spread to other plants, especially inside the top buds of Brussels sprouts. Check the long-standing plants often, carefully unfolding the tightly wrapped central growing cluster of leaves at the top of the stalk. Drench with the soapy solution if there are aphids hiding deep inside, and make sure to check the lower side-buds as well, once they start to form over the summer. In general, if the stems of any plant do get covered with aphids, discard the entire plant, in order to immediately to check the infestation. Aphids are endemic here, and will keep reappearing at intervals; but careful, organic pest management will control them.

There’s a good side to all the rain, though. The early broccoli crop has been abundant, the spring cabbages are already reaching full size, and the first small white crowns of cauliflower are forming. With our extended daylight hours of summer, cauliflower heads may start to sprout or discolor prematurely before getting full-sized. Lightly cover the central area of the plant by cracking, but not completely severing, the stems of a few of the outer cauliflower leaves and then folding them over the emerging heads. Complete the makeshift parasol by adding on top a few large, aged cabbage leaves. Keep the cauliflower heads in the dark. Wait for the head to grow to full size and pick while the curds are still tight. Fresh, homegrown cauliflower eaten straight from the garden is incredibly sweet compared to the commercial product that has been aging in transport.

A note on the garlic harvest. Some gardeners in the Dewey Beach area had to pull their already-mature garlic last week. For my crop out in the Valley, the last of the scapes have just been removed. Hopefully there will be a dry spell of our Mediterranean-style summer to properly mature the plants just before lifting in mid-July. For more information on when to harvest garlic, see the link below to the recent New York Times article on Filaree Garlic Farm, a commercial garlic seed grower in the Okanogan. Nice to know an extensive seed bank of the many types of garlic from all over the world exists on the dry side of our state. (Thanks to Jan Hersey for sending me the link.)

 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/realestate/grow-garlic-garden-organic.html?smid=em-share

[ A subscription to the NY Times is required to read this article]

 

The Dry

Inside the hoop house, the main issue is watering, given the heat buildup that starts each morning as soon as the early sun hits the walls. I try to conserve water since I rely on an Artesian well that slows down in late August. Over the years I’ve tried various mulches, including black plastic and biodegradable paper mulch, to keep the soil moist, but I now prefer to leave the soil open to the warm air. I currently water using the half-gallon black plastic pots the tomato plants came in to make individual mini-cisterns half-buried next to the stems of each plant. The pots create an efficient deep-watering system.

For tomatoes, I cut the bottom off the thin-walled rectangular pots and drive the edges halfway down into a small, excavated area next to the plant and berm up soil around the outer sides of the pot. I fill the pots with a hose, letting the water seep down to the roots, with no leaks off the side of the raised mound. I do water the surface soil around the stem as well, but the pots supply the bulk of the irrigation.

For peppers, which don’t need quite the same volume of water, I use the thicker-walled cylindrical pots as is. The bottom drainage holes are buried 2-3 inches deep; the pot is located in between the plants, which are spaced 18” apart in the row. As with the tomatoes I water the soil surface around the stem of the plant a bit as well, to keep the surface moist, but most of the irrigation filters down to the roots. 

For both the tomatoes and peppers I let the cold well water warm up for a day in a 50-gallon barrel before applying it, via a gravity-fed hose, to what are originally tropical plants now being grown in a northern temperate zone. Keep their feet warm and wait for that first red tomato or full-sized pepper.

How to Perennialize Brassicas

Story and Photos by Sequoia Ferrel

June 10, 2020

I know. I made that up. It isn’t a verb. But in the relatively mild winters of the Pacific Northwest, we can sometimes grow brassicas as perennials, hence I like to “perennialize” some of mine.

After you harvest a cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and the like, if you leave the plant in the garden, most often it will continue to grow for years. I once had a purple-sprouting broccoli plant growing for multiple years before I cut it out.

The basic strategy is this: after you harvest your crop, you leave the plant to do its thing, which is flower and set seed. If you try to interfere by cutting off the sprouts it will be futile because the plant won’t give up on making its seed. But once the seed is made, eventually the plant will put out lots of new growth, usually around its base, and you can prune off all the old growth.

If you leave all the new sprouts, the plant will dissipate its energy and you might get 20 tiny cauliflowers (or whatever it is you’re growing). So you’ll want to thin the new growth by breaking or cutting them off.

You may have to keep thinning if the plant is determined to make lots of shoots. If you want, just leave one shoot or try for 2 or 3 (or more). Multiple shoots will sometimes still create good-sized stalks and maybe you’d rather have smaller heads anyway. Then next spring, you’ll get your second harvest much earlier than if you had planted new starts. And you can do this again and again each year.

I’ve had the best results with cauliflower, possibly because it doesn’t seem to make flower stalks once you rob it of its main flower (the cauliflower). I’ve sometimes been able to cut a cabbage in the fall and have the plant make a new cabbage but sometimes it will want to make a flower stalk. I haven’t quite figured out the timing on that, but you should be able to coax another cabbage out the next season.

So if you don’t need the garden space for something else and you like to experiment, go ahead and try to “perennialize” some of your favorite brassica veggies.

 

Above: Big Cauliflower

The second picture (below left) shows one plant that put up 3 good sized cauliflower stalks, one of which had already been cut. The two pictures on the right below show the new shoots coming up after a broccoli (or some brassica) has been cut back. And next, the same plant after being pruned back to the two strongest shoots

A New Backyard Pest; and much more

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted June 8, 2020

A new backyard pest

I spent several days this week dealing with an infestation of what looked like tiny, black, leaf-eating caterpillars that swarmed over a mature stand of highbush cranberry shrubs and also onto one nearby snowball bush. The leaves were skeletonized, leaving the stems and veins intact, by what resembled tiny leeches with legs, crawling up the main trunks to get to the foliage. The only solution was to cut down the tall shrubs completely and take them to the burn pile for immediate incineration. I am hoping I got rid of enough of the pests before they invade a nearby prized Japanese maple or a Korean dogwood that is in full bloom.

The soft cranberry shrub leaves were more susceptible than the thicker leaves on an adjacent shiny laurel, which was also covered by what looked like sticky frass, the technical term for insect droppings. So the laurel went as well, just to be safe. The recent heavy rains and lush undergrowth may have been part of the cause, but it is the first time I have seen such an invasion on mature shrubs that I have been growing and pruning for several decades. It certainly felt like an outbreak that had to be dealt with firmly. I will be on the lookout for further signs and will try to identify the critters specifically.

 

Tomato pollination

As the tomatoes climb up their supports and start to flower, it is important to remember that in order to set fruit the plants need to be kept above 50F degrees at night. When closing up the hoop house in the evening to maintain the heat, I give the tomato cages a quick shake to get the pollen out into into the air. Hopefully the small green buttons of nascent tomatoes will soon start to appear. The cherry tomatoes always come first, given their small size, leading the way for the larger standard varieties.

 

Vegetable perennials: artichokes and asparagus

I grow a bed of the standard Green Globe artichokes, which are just coming on. They are a welcome treat, but somewhat bland-tasting, and must be picked before they get too tough. I do have one bush of purple artichokes, Violetta de Provence, an Italian variety that produces smaller chokes, but with a much more delicate flavor. When picked early, you can eat almost the entire bud. Gourmet thistles.

The other garden perennial is the bed of asparagus, which is just reaching maturity in its third season. It has been worth the wait. Now one can pick a high percentage of the stalks, which are decidedly sweet when eaten straight from the garden. A key to a sustained harvest is to keep the bed well watered as the roots send up the shoots.

 

Broccoli

The first rush of ripe broccoli is also here, having recently emerged from their floating row cover. I blanch the flowerets for a few minutes just until they turn bright green, then quickly chill in cold water. I like them as an appetizer dipped into a sauce of mayonnaise mixed with a bit of dry mustard and a spritz of lemon juice. I have also found that the plain stems can be eaten as well if you cut them into small slices or julienned strips and blanch them a bit longer than the tops before chilling. If the stem is particularly tough, use a vegetable peeler to get rid of the thick skin. Eat the whole vegetable.

Late Spring in the Garden

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted June 1, 2020

 

First Brassicas

The early spring plantings of brassicas finally emerged this week from their protective cocoon of floating row cover, revealing small heads of broccoli that will be cutting size soon, as well as cabbages just starting to head up. It’s always a pleasure to free up the maturing plants straining against the white cloth, having successfully avoided any root maggot fly infestation, and only a few snails hiding out on the lower leaves. It is also a reminder that the late spring/early summer crop of brassica starts will need to go in soon. The cycle of year-round cole plants keeps turning.

Corn

I usually wait until June 1st to plant corn, allowing the soil to heat up to 60F degrees. Too often early sowings succumb to seed rot and poor germination. This year I jumped the gun a bit during the sunny week after Memorial Day and got my corn planted. Hopefully the day of rain that came soon after will be just enough to start the seed growing, but not too much to cause a problem.


Corn is always a favorite crop, if you have the space to grow it, as well as a reliable supply of water. Corn plants require consistent watering for their tall stalks, large leaves and the eventual ears. I enjoy the sound of the rustling leaves in the wind, and am always amazed at the process of the tassels shedding pollen down to fertilize the delicate hairs that lead to each individual kernel.
With the recent pattern of warmer summers, sweet corn has become more reliable to grow in the Northwest garden. I plant three varieties, a standard yellow such as Bodacious, a bi-color called Peach & Cream, and my favorite, a long-season white such as Silver King.
Corn is one of the easiest vegetables to process for freezing. I blanch the ears for several minutes in boiling water, quickly chill in cold water to stop the cooking, and then slice off the kernels with a sharp knife. To preserve the real sweetness of fresh corn, use the back of the knife blade to scrape down all the milky juice from the cob and mix it in with the cut kernels. When defrosted and cooked for just a few minutes you will have the taste of fresh corn, almost as good as ears of corn fresh picked from the garden.

Tomatoes, Peppers, and Cukes

In the hoop house, tomato plants are leafing out vigorously and climbing up the rungs of the cages and a few flowers are appearing. The important thing is to trim off any lower leaf stems touching the soil, to avoid fungus infections. Consistent watering is required to promote steady growth as well as to avoid leaf curling, which can be a sign of either too much or too little water. To complicate matters, individual varieties may show different levels of water tolerance. Out of my 20 tomato plants, only one variety, a Sweet Million cherry tomato, has signs of leaf curl but still looks healthy, so I eased up on the water a bit. Gardening is always a mix of monitoring and adjusting.

Some of my peppers, bought early on from one source, were lagging behind others purchased later, so I dosed the smaller plants one time with liquid fish fertilizer, 2 tbsp. per gallon of water, to green them up a bit. I also pinched back all the peppers after they were planted, removing the first solo top buds in order to encourage branching and a greater number of secondary buds.

The cucumbers are finding their way onto their wire trellis, from the early Marketmore slicers, to the later planted Persians just starting appear, as well as a few pickling cuke starts just added to round out the collection. At some point in the summer there will be a first salad featuring homegrown cukes, tomatoes, and peppers to go with all the fresh lettuce that has been growing outside the hoop house.

A Potato Problem; and a Perennial Brassica

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 25, 2020
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I’ve grown potatoes successfully for many years, always making sure to rotate my plantings each year, and to avoid disease using new potato seed instead of the last of my stored potatoes. I try to get mostly egg-sized seed potatoes to plant whole, and cut any larger ones into separate pieces with at least 2-3 eyes. I dry the cut ones for a day, to let the cut surface dry out.

This year, however, whole sections of the rows never sprouted, particularly the favorite Yukon Golds, with failure also in parts of the Cal Whites and a few of the Red Lasodas. When unearthed, the affected seed potatoes were all rotted, with no sprouts, particularly the ones that had been cut. Was the problem in the seed itself or in the soil? Or did the cutting open them to fungi? The area had been in pole beans and winter squash last year, and corn the year before, so soil rotation should not have been a concern. Plus, I had grown potatoes there in prior years. Very disappointing, since potatoes are as an easy and usually reliable crop.

Although there would be plenty of time to replant, the supply of seed potatoes is long gone, given this year’s surge in gardening interest. When a garden setback occurs, the best thing is to fill the gap quickly. So I planted winter squash starts to cover the bare soil: Cinderella‘s Coach, Kabocha, and Sweetmeat. Hopefully the fact that winter squash and pumpkins had been planted in the same area last year will not be an issue. Plus, the plot had a winter cover crop of annual rye that had been tilled in. Gardens are always an experiment and often an exercise in overcoming adversity.

Note: if anyone else had problems with their seed potatoes this year, please let me know. As in past years, my seed came from the hardware store in town.

A Perennial Brassica

Many years ago I received a gift packet of seeds from a pair of pilgrims who had walked the Camino and then returned the next year to serve as hostel hosts on the Path. The seed was an extremely frost-resistant variety of Kale, with large flat leaves like collards, and commonly grown in gardens in Galicia, thriving in the rainy winter coastal climate similar to the Maritime Northwest. Most unusual for a brassica, it was a perennial, not dying back after going to seed the second season. Each year the plant gets larger and bushier, makes flowers for seed, and surrounds itself with multitudes of seedlings. Fittingly, the tall, thick stalks are fashioned by local craftsmen along the Camino into lightweight walking sticks for the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella. Holy Brassica.

Sadly, the couple who had originally brought me the seed have now both passed on. So, in their memory I maintained several of these everlasting Spanish kales, until finally the plants got too large and had to be removed to make space. But the original plants left behind a store of viable seed in the soil. Even after several years, I found numerous seedlings sprouting up where the parent plants had been. So, as a way of perpetuating the variety, I transplanted them this year into super-sized pots meant for small trees and installed them as mementos in my non-vegetable backyard, hoping they will survive the deer who graze there each evening. I look forward to seeing the large green leaves, as emblematic to me of the Camino as the mileposts there marked with the sign of the pilgrim’s scallop shell.

Note: the variety is officially known as Cabbage-Kale, and originated in the Isle of Jersey.

 

Spring Update, and Brassicas

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 18, 2020
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Crops planted earlier in April are starting to take off. The first potato leaves are pushing up at the bottom of their trench and will need repeated hilling around the stalks to make more spuds and less foliage. The bush snap and tall snow peas are knee-high and starting to flower as they climb their trellises. The storage onion seedlings and the onion sets are 6-8 inches high, while the first beds of leek transplants are being installed.

In the hoop house all the tomato and pepper plants are finally in, the cucumber transplants are adding leaves, and the direct seeded cukes are starting to pop up. I have a few eggplants, but I do them in large pots filled with commercial soil to avoid the verticillium wilt disease that has built up in the garden soil over the years.

Finally, the early cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower starts, as well as the long-term Brussels Sprouts, are starting to push up against the floating row covers.

A Note on Brassicas: the 4-Season Crop

In the coastal Pacific Northwest’s moderate maritime climate vegetable gardeners are able to a grow one or more variety of brassicas year-round.

Broccoli
Photo by Betty Carteret

Cabbages start in the spring with a variety such as Early Jersey Wakefield, continue on through the summer with large heading varieties for slaw and sauerkraut, while long-standing red cabbage matures slowly over 100 growing days. Hardy Fall/Winter green cabbage such as January King, planted in mid-to-late summer, keep sprouting through our mild winters. Other cabbage varieties include the crinkly Savoy, as well as the various types of Oriental cabbage.

Broccoli is much the same, with early, mid-summer and fall crops. There are also two purple over-wintering varieties: the Valentine broccoli that heads up in late February or March, even amidst brief snowfalls, and the Purple Sprouting broccoli that slowly develops as a leafy bush all the winter and then produces masses of small edible buds in early spring.

Cauliflower I find is usually just one crop in summer, with both the standard white variety and the green Romanesco with its circular pattern of pointed buds. Brussels Sprouts, started in the spring, start to mature in late fall, and stand tall all winter.

Red Cabbage
Photo by Betty Carteret

With all these possibilities to fill up the garden space it is vital to rotate your cabbage crops to avoid build up of soil disease. Do not plant brassicas where they were grown the prior year. There are also endemic insect threats, especially the cabbage root maggot fly, which will destroy the roots of young brassica seedlings. The cabbage butterfly, the familiar white floater, produces caterpillars deep inside the cabbage head, but the damage is usually minimal. And aphids will hide in the soft tops of Brussels Sprouts in both summer and winter, but can be deterred by spraying with a mild solution of detergent and water.

Protect all brassicas initially against insects with floating row cover, well-sealed on the ground on all sides, and held up by wire hoops over the beds. I leave the cloth protection on until the plants are at least half grown or more and can survive on their own. Check often under the cloth to remove weeds, snails or slugs. The final reward is when you remove the cover to reveal the luxurious maturing crop. Almost like magic.