Plan Ahead for Winter Brassicas

by Julia Frisbie

posted July 6, 2021

If you left any kale plants in your garden over winter, and neglected to pull them out this spring, you probably noticed the wonderful tall spray of yellow flowers, followed by loads of tiny purple/green seed pods. In my garden, the birds have been eagerly checking these seeds for ripeness.

Birds and kale work together in wonderful ways to support each other’s next generations. Right as baby birds are leaving the nest, kale spreads her arms open wide and offers several weeks worth of high-protein food, packaged neatly so only birds can get it, and stored on perches high enough to offer protection from ground predators. The fledglings visit again and again as they learn their way around the neighborhood, and as they go, they disperse whatever seed they don’t metabolize in an ever-widening radius. They leave it in warm, moist bundles of fertilizer under every appealing perch, often along hedgerows and under trees. Kale seedlings spring up in apparent delight. Baby birds and baby kale both get off to a good start. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “all flourishing is mutual.”

Following kale’s lead, we know that late-June to mid-July is a good time to plant her seeds. I learned from Linda Gilkeson’s Backyard Bounty that the same holds true for many frost tolerant biennials in the brassica family: broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, raab, and cabbage. If you plant them in June or July, they become the backbone of your winter garden. It’s hard to think of winter just as our temperatures begin to climb… unless you notice the dance happening between birds and kale.

Once you watch the dance long enough, you learn the steps and get to join in. Last year I cut down a few of the seed stalks (leaving plenty behind for the birds) and let them dry on my shady front porch until they were light brown and rattling. Then I wrapped them up in a big cotton sheet and jumped on them for a while. After unwrapping them, I grabbed the sticks and the empty pods up by the handful for mulch, and was left with a slick pile of perfectly black, spherical seeds in the bottom of the sheet. I tipped them out into a pint jar.

All summer I scattered pinches of seed in city easements and along our favorite walking routes, but I still had too much left over. I thought to myself: what would the birds do? So I packed them up into little coin envelopes and mailed them all across the country as Christmas gifts to my far-flung loved ones. (If you got one of those, this is your reminder: scatter your kale seeds now!) I put the rest in Transition Fidalgo’s seed bank. Email if you’d like some. You have nothing to lose; only leafy greens and songbirds to gain.

3 thoughts on “Plan Ahead for Winter Brassicas

  1. Ruth Taylor

    I love this idea of leaving the seeds! I do have a concern after reading an article in the Hearld in 2016 about the cross contamination of this seed with what is grown for seed in Skagit County:

    Gary Picha, a field representative for seed contractor Syngenta Seeds, said the company spends a lot of time patrolling for kale plants.
    “We stop and talk to the homeowners and most of the time they are happy to comply,” Picha said. “It’s just a matter of letting them know.”
    Home gardeners with kale plants should remove the yellow flowers every couple days or destroy the plant, Picha said.
    He said home gardeners should contact the Washington State University Skagit County Extension for information on how to safely grow their own seeds

    I’m wondering if leaving the seeds also contributes to this problem for seed growers.

    1. Julia

      Dear Ruth,

      Oh, I dearly hope that my kale seed project is a thorn in Syngenta’s side! What a delectable thought! Syngenta/Chem-China is one of the “big four” multi-nationals (along with Bayer/Monsanto, Corteva, and BASF) working to patent and privatize the genetics of our food plants, destroying biodiversity and resilience in the process. Remind me sometime this winter to write about seed sovereignty, the seed satygraha, and ethical seed sources.

      Brassica oleacea is an incredibly diverse species that includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, collard greens, kohlrabi, several types of Asian greens, and the European kales. It’s insect pollinated, and of course insects don’t care about keeping the varieties pure from each other, so if any of these plants go to seed at the same time within half a mile of each other they can cross and produce offspring with unpredictable traits! Small-scale seed growers use timing or barriers to maintain varietal purity. More info here:

      Fortunately for Syngenta, my kale is Brassica rapa, commonly known as Siberian kale. It doesn’t cross with the oleraceas. But who knows… maybe someday, Syngenta will try to breed Brassica rapa on Fidalgo Island and be ultimately thwarted by my wild and untidy projects.

      A girl can dream.

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