By Elena Day
In most years our sweet peas and sugar snaps would have been planted by the third week of February. This year the garden is covered with snow and it would take a pickaxe to break through the soil. I’m anxiously awaiting the thaw to continue the business of transplanting lettuce and Brassica seedlings.
Brassica oleracea is a genus and species which includes red, green and savoy cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale, collards, broccoflower or Romanesco and Brussels sprouts. Another genus and species, Brassica rapa, includes Napa or Chinese cabbage, mizuna, bok choy, turnips, and broccoli raab. The last has gained in popularity in recent years.
The Brassicas are also referred to as cole crops or crucifers and are members of the mustard family. They are high in vitamin C, folate, carotenoids and fiber, and there is evidence that they may be a colon cancer deterrent. It is beneficial to eat them raw, in stir-fry or lightly steamed. Cooked-to-death cabbage or other cole crop might taste great but most of the positive benefits escape with the slow stewing.
The Brassicas need to be well along as their success in spring is related to how quickly hot weather gets going. Broccoli and cauliflower are especially prone to bolting; i.e., flowering, rather than heading up, in warmer springs. The Brassicas are heavy feeders, meaning that they need soil rich in nitrogen and organic matter. I generally side dress my Brassica plantings with organic matter at some point in the growing season.
I keep the Brassicas under floating row covers to thwart the cabbage moths. These white butterflies appear as the weather warms. Two weeks after their appearance one can be sure that the Brassicas will be infested with green worms. There is nothing worse than cooking up a head of broccoli, buttering it up and finding dead worms at first bite. Floating row covers also protect young plants from temperature variations and frosts, providing a somewhat more controlled environment. Bacillus thurigenensis (Dipel) is an OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified insecticide that will kill the green worms but is ineffective against the butterflies or eggs.
I especially recommend Romanesco or broccoflower to cole crop fans. It takes up a bit of space, but the taste of the Romanesco is better than that of either broccoli or cauliflower. Furthermore, its head is a light green natural approximation of a fractal. The largest part of a fractal replicates its smallest parts in a self-similar pattern.
As for growing fall cole crops, I have yet to discover a foolproof system. It’s hard to protect young seedlings germinated in late July from the ravages of insect pests through August and into September. I did have a decent crop of broccoli and cabbage this early winter until temperatures reached the single digits.
Regarding kale and collards, I seed these in the fall and hope for the best. We had a cold winter last year and both came through and made a good showing in midspring. I will reseed kale again once the ground is no longer frozen. I germinate seeds of Tuscan or lacinato kale (also called Dinosaur kale) and Red Russion and Redbor kales and set these out a little later than the other cole crops. Last year, because of cooler weather, the kales continued into July. I find that cabbage moths are less likely to infest red kales and red cabbage as heavily.
Briefly, the Yugoslavian Red butterhead lettuce, which I favor, thrives (and by this I mean big mature uncrinkled heads) in my unheated hoop house during the single digit and sub-zero nightly temperatures we’ve recently suffered. I have covered it with a floating row cover in the hoop house and have made sure it has adequate water. It’s the cold and dry that results in winterkill.
The Yugoslavian Red is listed as an heirloom from Marburg, in the former Yugoslavia. Heirlooms are specifically adapted to a particular geographic area. An heirloom from Iowa might not perform so well in Piedmont Virginia because our soils and climate are very different; i.e., just because a variety is labeled heirloom doesn’t mean it will perform well in your garden. The “Yugo” adapts well to our area. Seeds are now available at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Southern Exposure focuses on heirloom seeds and open-pollinated or non-hybrid seeds with an emphasis on crops that grow well in our Mid-Atlantic region.
Common Wealth Seed Growers is a new cooperative seed house in Louisa County. These folks have varieties specifically adapted to Central Virginia. They are particularly focused on selecting for open- pollinated varieties of cucurbits that exhibit resistance to Downy Mildew. Cucurbits are melons, squash and cucumbers. Downy Mildew can devastate these crops and last summer even infested basil locally. More about this fungal scourge next time.
Finally, here’s a Virginia Commonwealth energy update.
I was happy to hear about President Obama’s veto of the Keystone Pipeline. In addition to the environmental threats of pipelines, tar sands extractive operations result in acres and acres of toxic tailing ponds. To keep migrating waterfowl from alighting on these noxious stew ponds (from which many might never take off again) oil companies shoot off propane cannons every ten seconds around the clock. This has become routine in once pristine Alberta.
Closer to home, Dominion Virginia Power is proposing alternate routes for its pipeline project, thereby angering more landowners with peremptory notification of surveys.
Dominion continues to push (and spend ratepayer dollars) for a third nuclear unit in Louisa. North Anna has two aged nuclear units in close proximity to an active earthquake fault. A small tremor occurred on February 26 in nearby Goochland County. Although a slight shaking, it’s a little too close for comfort. A coalition of 15 groups in Central Virginia, Not on Our Fault Line, sent a letter last month to Governor McAuliffe, the General Assembly, the State Corporation Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Dominion to demand that expansion of nuclear power in Virginia cease and investment in clean energy move forward.
In the last two weeks the General Assembly passed and McAuliffe put his pen to a bill designed by and for Dominion that will allow Dominion to keep the overcharges to its customers for the next five years without State Corporation Commission review/oversight. Dominion blamed the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan that seeks to curb carbon emissions and orient utilities to clean energy. Accountability to its customers has been legislated as passé in the Old Dominion and critics have sarcastically joked that our General Assembly is now “a wholly-owned subsidiary of Dominion Resources.”