The Brassicaceae family is wide,
wonderful and diverse. It includes sweet-smelling
alyssum, fragrant stock, pungent arugula, sharp
horseradish, peppery watercress and zesty radishes.
Within this family are cabbage and its edible cousins
from the genus and species Brassica oleracea, a
venerated group of vegetables that contain powerful,
health-promoting phytochemicals. Also known as cole
crops, these cruciferous vegetables originated from an
ancient, herbaceous mustard-type plant found growing
along the rocky coast of the Mediterranean.
Originally harvested for its pungent leaves, this wild
plant was gradually domesticated as farmers deliberately
selected for desirable edible traits that we cultivate
in our gardens today: the leafy greens of kale and
collards, the flower buds of broccoli and cauliflower,
the bulbous stem of kohlrabi, the terminal bud of
cabbage and the axillary buds of Brussels sprouts.
Despite the diversity of their edible parts, the
familial similarities can be seen in the shape and
texture of their large broad leaves (all of which are
edible) and the four-petaled yellow flowers that, once
pollinated, give rise to small dark seeds that develop
inside narrow, oblong capsules called siliques.
These vegetables, with their thick, waxy leaves, are
perfect specimens for the fall and winter garden in
Texas. They grow well at temperatures between 45°–75° F,
and gradual exposure to cold temperatures conditions the
plants so they can handle a dip into the teens. If,
however, an extended hard freeze is predicted, it would
be wise to protect plants with frost cover or go ahead
and harvest plants that are nearing maturity. With the
exception of long-growing Brussels sprouts, these cole
crops are ready for the table 60–90 days after
transplanting. Most are biennials that are grown as
annuals and harvested before they produce seed, but if
they receive the necessary exposure to cold temperatures
over the winter, some varieties will produce flowers the
following spring. This period of cold exposure, called
vernalization, is dependent on the weather, requiring
several weeks of temperatures below 50° F to induce
flowering. Most broccoli varieties are annuals, which
fact explains their tendency to bolt into a riot of
yellow blooms as the weather warms.
will grow in a wide range of soils and they share
similar cultivation requirements. Full sun is preferable
for heading crops, especially during the winter season,
when days are shorter. Leafy greens will tolerate a
little shade and a successful crop is possible even with
4–6 hours of sunlight. Cole crops are heavy feeders, and
so good soil preparation and fertility will get plants
off to a good start. Amend soil with a 2-inch layer of
compost along with a granular, all-purpose vegetable
fertilizer, following label instructions. Plant
transplants 10–12 weeks before the first freeze in fall;
water in with a starter solution and continue to feed
with a high-nitrogen fertilizer or fish emulsion every
3–4 weeks to encourage steady growth.
important to recognize that heading crops must be kept
actively growing to produce large leaves on vigorous
plants in order to support the formation of heavy,
well-developed heads. Plants that are stressed by too
little water, too much cold or low fertility can stunt
the development of the head. This condition, called
buttoning, is irreversible. No amount of water or
fertilizer will coax a head out of a stunted plant. When
buying transplants, look for stocky seedlings grown in
3- or 4-inch containers. Transplants that have already
begun to produce a head are generally a lost cause, an
indication they have spent too much time in the
Follow the spacing recommendation when
setting transplants in the garden. As a general rule,
allow 18–24 inches between plants for adequate
development. The more generous spacing will result in
larger leaves and a bigger head. Compact varieties
developed for container culture or small-space gardens
can be positioned closer together.
new introductions or unique heirlooms are sometimes hard
to find at local nurseries, but it’s easy to grow your
own from seed and only takes 4–6 weeks to reach
Grown for large heads composed of tight clusters of
flower buds, heading broccoli is a fall favorite. Once
the central crown is harvested, the plant will continue
to produce smaller lateral side shoots. ‘Arcadia’,
‘Belstar’ and ‘Green Magic’ tolerate cold and provide a
plentiful harvest of secondary side shoots. Older
varieties of Italian descent, such as ‘Calabrese’ and
‘De Cicco’, are known as sprouting broccoli. Rather than
a large central head, they produce a season of tender
florets atop slender stalks.
The cluster of immature buds that form a cauliflower
head is called a curd. The curd can be white, green,
purple or orange, with white the most common and
familiar color. Snowy-white cauliflower is the result of
blanching to shield the developing curd from the sun.
Some cauliflowers are self-blanching, with leaves that
naturally fold inward to cover the head, while other
varieties are blanched by wrapping or tying up the outer
leaves. This can be done using a clothespin, rubber band
or twine when the curd is about 3–4 inches in diameter.
Colored varieties do not need to be blanched.
Cauliflower is sensitive to weather extremes, and
prolonged exposure to freezing weather leads to
off-color or misshapen heads. Frost cloth used during a
hard freeze can provide the protection cauliflower needs
to survive unaffected. Improvements by plant breeders
have led to the introduction of hybrid varieties that
are faster to mature and less susceptible to temperature
extremes, resulting in a more successful crop for Texas
gardens. ‘Amazing’ and ‘Snow Crown’ are white,
self-blanching varieties. For colored heads, try purple
‘Graffiti’, green ‘Vitaverde’ or orange ‘Flame Star’.
Another unique green variety is an Italian heirloom
called ‘Romanesco’, a striking pyramid of pointed
spirals, sure to turn heads in the garden and at the
Cabbage. From compact
mini-heads to crinkled savoys to anthocyanin-packed
reds, cabbage is as diverse and interesting as any other
brassica. The many varieties available add color,
texture and form to the garden from fall to spring.
Early-season varieties mature about two months from
transplanting to midseason, whereas late varieties can
take up to three months. Harvest window can be extended
by choosing varieties that mature at different rates.
Cabbages have a tendency to split if allowed to
over-mature, so be sure to note the approximate size and
days-to-harvest for whatever variety you decide to grow.
For an early harvest of two- to three-pound heads, try
‘Farao’, ‘Red Express’ or savoyed ‘Alcosa’. ‘Early
Jersey Wakefield’ is a popular heirloom from the
mid-1800s that produces conical heads on compact plants.
‘Deadon’ is a beautiful, cold-hardy savoy type;
light-green leaves are flushed with purple.
Brussels sprouts. Grown for the small
buds that develop at leaf axils along the stalk,
Brussels sprouts have become a popular garden crop and
are well-suited to the fall and winter months. They grow
over a long season, and exposure to frost helps develop
a better flavor. Diminutive sprouts develop at the base
of the plant first, gradually spiraling upward as the
plant matures. Cut or twist to harvest sprouts when they
are no bigger than a golf ball; removing the lower
leaves will make harvesting the sprouts easier. ‘Hestia’
is a hybrid 2015 All-America Selections winner prized
for its uniform growth habit and cold tolerance. ‘Autumn
Star’ Kalettes, a recent breeding innovation involving a
hybrid cross between Brussels sprouts and kale, results
in lovely, open florets that develop along the stalk.
Collards and kale. Direct-seeded or
grown from transplants, these cabbage cousins produce
nutritious leaves in shades of green, blue-green and
purple. Cold-hardy and attractive, collards and kale are
among the easiest brassicas to grow. Versatile in the
kitchen, the leaves can be harvested at varying sizes:
small and tender for salads, mid-size for wraps or fully
mature for a hearty pot of Southern greens. Harvest
individual leaves from the base of the stalk as needed,
or the entire plant can be harvested by cutting it off
just above ground level. Crinkled kale favorites include
blue-green ‘Starbor’ and deep purple ‘Redbor’, both
reaching 2–3 feet in height. ‘Lacinato’ kale goes by
many names, including ‘Toscano’, ‘Cavalo Nero’ and dino
kale. An Italian heirloom that dates to the late 1800s,
it is a favorite of foodies and gardeners alike. It is
prized for its narrow, puckered leaves that grow on
striking 3-foot plants.
In contrast to frilly
kale, the leaves of collards are thick and smooth.
Classic favorites include ‘Champion’ and ‘Georgia
Southern’, but all varieties seem to grow well in Texas.
One of my favorite heirloom collards is ‘Green Glaze’.
It tolerates heat, is slow to bolt in spring, and its
slick, bright-green leaves seem somewhat resistant to
edible part of kohlrabi may look like a turnip, but it
is actually a bulbous stem that develops above ground at
the base of the leaves, which are also edible.
Light-green or purple on the outside, the interior is
crisp and creamy white, with a mild, sweet flavor that
hints at its kinship to cabbage. Kohlrabi can be seeded
directly in the garden, at intervals one-to-two weeks
apart to extend the harvest. For best flavor and
texture, harvest when not much larger than a golf ball;
a delay in harvesting may lead to a bitter flavor and
woody texture. Purple-skinned varieties include
‘Kolibri’ (an improved, uniform hybrid) and ‘Azur Star’
(a popular open-pollinated variety). ‘Early Green
Vienna’ and ‘Early Purple Vienna’ are widely adapted
heirlooms that have been grown in the United States
since the 1860s.
As soon as your defenseless
transplants get set out in the garden, they will be
discovered by a number of pests, especially
caterpillars, cutworms and aphids. Protecting plants
with row cover will exclude these pests and also provide
a little protection on cold nights. Cover plants
immediately after planting and secure the edges with
soil, rocks, boards or U-shaped pins.
treatment includes regular spraying with insecticidal
soap for aphids and Bt for control of caterpillars.
Cutworms will curl around the base of tender, new
transplants and cut them off at the ground, but you can
foil such devilment by placing a physical barrier, like
a stick, toothpick or a sliver of plastic straw, right
next to the stem.
One of the many benefits of
growing your own vegetables is eating them at their
peak. As you anticipate the coming harvest, think about
how you plan to incorporate your prized produce into
your meals. Stinky boiled brassicas are out; instead
consider roasting, grilling, stir-frying, pickling and
raw preparations. Combine with complimentary flavorings:
the saltiness of bacon, soy sauce or Parmesan cheese;
the spiciness of fresh chiles or red pepper flakes; the
tang of apple-cider vinegar, mustard or lemon.
Cookbooks, blogs and cooking magazines are packed with
creative and delicious recipes sure to whet your