Hartley Magazine

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A guide to growing brassicas

Perhaps gardening suits those who peer over fences, always thinking there is something better to be had from life. Im not alone in longing for blue skies in the dank depths of winter, but I’m also guilty of yearning for chilly days and cosy log fires when sitting on a beach. It is just gone midsummer and the allotment has entered possibly its most productive phase of the year, but my mind has turned – as the good, eternaly dissatisfied gardener’s should – to winter. At a time of luxurious bounty and plenty I have been thinking of the abstemious pleasures of steamed kale and purple sprouting broccoli, and I have been sowing them in the greenhouse too.

Brassicas (for they are they) are a pain. They want belt and braces, sure, but you’d better throw in a suspender belt and some sturdy support pants too, just in case. Plant them out bare naked and unprotected and see all the world’s pests pause only to call in their extended family before descending on them with glee. There is genuinely no point in planting any of the brassicas if you aren’t going to fully protect them from the outset: we’re talking within hours, not days or weeks. Having tried out each and every corner-cutting possibility over the years I have come to the conclusion that the simple way to keep out the cabbage white caterpillar, and the pigeons, and the flea beetle, and the aphids is to build a vast and sturdy structure and to cover it in a close netting such as enviromesh. Go to that trouble and it’s fairly easy from there on in; don’t and you are looking at a year of fussing and messing with fleece and netting and root collars.

BrassicasSo they are trouble, and they take up lots of space for a very long time, and this is why I have slowly whittled them down until I am left with kale and purple sprouting broccoli. No cabbages for me: tricky, space-hogging and really quite dull on harvesting. No cauliflowers either – though I can always think of plenty to do with them – as I have never quite cracked growing them and there is nothing more frustrating than going to a huge amount of trouble to grow a tricky crop that doesn’t ever quite do what it’s meant to. I have grown too many cauliflowers purely to feed the compost heap with big leaves and a tiny, nibbled cauliflower head. Plus cauliflowers and cabbages are one-meal plants, grown forever, gone in a night, whereas my favoured ones will go on and on, through those chilly, dank days, throwing out the odd leaf or flower sprout for the pot.

Sowing my brassicas outside in a seed bed and transplanting later on is a possibility – the weather is certainly warm enough now, and you should go down this route if you dont have a greenhouse – but you really must defend your baby plants from all these slings and arrows even in their seed bed: covering it with fleece would do the job pretty well. But my greenhouse raising is working very nicely. The greenhouse has switched from acting as my heater to keep off the chill of spring, to being a precursor to that sturdy, pigeon-proof structure, and keeping the big bad world away from my brassicas just long enough for me to actually get around to building it. And when Im eating my unmolested brassica shoots and leaves come winter, I’ll be sure to get all dewy eyed about courgettes, broad beans and new potatoes.