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Kale, Collards, Savoy, Brussels Sprouts; they are just cabbages I
am told. All Brassica oleracea.
Cauliflower, Kohlrabi, Gai lan and Broccoli are also the same species.
Since they are all the same species, they are capable of cross
pollination. Maintaining the purity of a variety of any of these
vegetable kinds requires that there are no other members of B. oleracea
in bloom at the same time in the same garden where insect pollinators
can transfer pollen among different plants. However, because of
self incompatability, it is useful to have many plants of the cultivar
that you wish to save pure seed of. Many seed-savers see the need
to preserve a large enough gene pool for the variety, at least a dozen
The star of our 2005 cabbage trials, this popular European Cabbage
known as "January King" was perhaps the most beautiful specimen in our
patch. It started to show color in late fall and by Thanksgiving the
purple highlights were very well developed. It's traditionally a
"spring" cabbage in Europe maturing in 165 days or so in the regions
where winters are mild. We have to fine tune our planting/harvest
schedule to maximize head size next year- but it certainly has
potential in our climate!
Cabbage: January King
The flavor of January King was terrific. Sweet and crisp.
It would be nice to develop an earlier version of January King.
Plant in mid summer for an after-frost harvest. Cold is often the
catalyst that brings on the best flavors like kale, collards, cabbage
and brussels sprouts. Tones down the harsher mustard flavors and
adds some sweetness. Although we're not reluctant to use summer
cabbages and young kales and collards from the garden, we can't wait
for frosty weather to finish off the crucifers for harvest. Below
freezing weather doesn't damage this group unless temperatures drop
down into the teens and low twenty's. For a seed crop, moving the
rooted mature plants into a root cellar for humid, cold storage
protected from the kind of intense winter freezing/thawing cycles
that will kill these plants is essential. Some cultivars will
over-winter in the field if given some protective mulching.
January King has wintered over with mulch here on Long Island.
After January King, other cabbages are just cabbages. This year
we trialed about a dozen varieties of cabbage from Europe recommended
by organic growers there- some did quite well in our
gardens. Look for specific varieties that we will release
as local seed crops are produced.
To produce seeds one must overwinter the first year's crop. Cabbages,
brussels sprouts, kales and collards are biennial. Some varieties
of cabbage and brussels sprouts don't make it through our winters so
that a heavy leaf mulch or a protective plastic cold-frame like cover
by mid December is necessary. Many brassica including cabbage and
brussels sprouts send up a mass of flower stalks from the main
Cabbages are not known from the wild, they are a product of human
selection. Wild cabbages are collard like. In selecting the
traits we find important such as a rock-hard head for kraut and slaw
and most of all to provide an easy kind of food storage through the
winter (head cabbages store well), we have made the cabbage dependent
on us in order to survive. Cabbage breeders have turned this
leafy vegetable into a gigantic terminal bud, the growing tip confined
beneath overlapping bud scale leaves. Sometimes cabbage heads
will soften on their own after winter in the field so that the stem can
emerge from the top of the cabbage, sometimes the entire plant will rot
though. It may be necessary to split the cabbage head so that the
terminal bud at the heart of the head can emerge. And then,
sometimes dormant buds along the short stem beneath the head sprout in
spring. It takes a while for the flower stalks to emerge and
flower (in late April) and another month or two to produce seed pods
that turn brown with ripe seed. Use care to harvest the seed before the
pods (siliques) shatter.
A field of "sprouts" on the North Fork just across the water from
Flanders Bay Farm. Long Island farmers still produce several acres of
Brussels Sprouts, we even have an old open-pollinated variety named
after Long Island from the days that this brussels sprout cultivar was
exensively grown here and when local farmers even produced seed crops
of this variety for themselves and the local seed retailers. In
the 1950's it was the sprout we grew in our Deer Park garden.
It's been ages since brussels sprout seed has been produced on Long
Island. That's probably the reason that the "Long Island" variety
of brussels sprouts is almost never grown here anymore. It
is still in commerce from seed grown on the West Coast. There, it
is an important processing variety. I wonder if selection for
the west coast commercial farmer has significantly changed it so that
it's performance here is just not as good as it once was. If
there is time, we'll do a brussels sprouts trial next year. There
is quite a bit of diversity in brussels sprouts. The plants can
be tall or short, green or purple, the sprouts can be widely spaced on
the stem or internodes can be closely spaced. It would be nice to
re-adapt Long Island brussels sprouts.
Generally, the four week old transplants go into the field in June and
are harvested after the first frost. Most are marketed in November and
December and cut fresh from the fields even if covered by a light
snow! Like kale and collards, the cold makes the sprouts more
tender and sweet. They really aren't "just cabbages", each member of
the cabbage family has a unique and distinctive flavor.
The Tragedy of the Sprouts
Brussels Sprouts are marginally hardy until spring if left in the
field. With some protection they will surivive in zone 7 and
begin to send flower shoots from the loosened and battered axial buds
(sprouts) along the stalk. A single plant can produce a multitude
of branching flower stalks and hundreds of yellow flowers that if
successfully pollinated will develop into seed pods. The
flowering can happen an early as late April and the pods will mature in
early to mid summer. Pulling sprount plants and cabbage plants
from the field in order to rootcellar the plants before a hard frost is
ideal if you have an area that will be maintained above freezing and
with sufficient moisture to prevent the roots from drying. One
technique to winter over and produce seed crops of cabbage and brussels
sprouts is to pot up the plants in gallon containers and hold them over
in a cold polyhouse. The pods (siliques) will turn brown
when they mature and when it appears that the pods are ripe enough to
begin to shatter and lose seeds; cut the stalk and store upside down in
a loose brown paper bad where they will dry. Allow the pods tp
become brittle over several days or weeks and then thrash and clean the
seed for storage. You will be surprised that the seed yield of
one plant can be several ounces! Our breeding goal is to turn
Long Island Brussels Sprouts back into the surefire sprout maker it
once was and maintain the sprout size, excellent flavor, early maturity
and dwarf plant size.
It pains me to see a great field of Long Island Sprouts or for that
matter; cabbage, kale, collards or many of the biennial brassicas
that survived the winter being turned over in the spring. I
want to run into the field and select the plants that really are
exceptional (there are always a few) to allow them to go to seed.
We're talking acres of a variety to select from as opposed to the
dozens of plants that I have to select from in my gardens...and that
matters. Selecting from a larger population is always more
effective. If farmers only realized they could be harvesting
superior seed for the next planting. What a missed
opportunity. Hey Long Island farmers...just give me a call before
you plow and I will come with my shovel and show you how easy it is!