The first seeds of the 2014 garden went into the soil exactly one week ago. Spring was in the air, we had a good run of days in the 40s, even a brief stint at 50+ degrees. This morning the world outside my window is covered with fresh layer of sticky March snow that will mostly melt into a sloppy mess by the end of the day. Such is life in Minnesota in March! It is as sure a sign that spring is on its way as the happy little seedlings growing under the lights in the house!
If you are like me, and are aiming (hoping) to plant your garden in early to mid May, it’s go-time for starting brassicas from seed. If you haven’t already started your cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale indoors, do it now (but hang tight on kohlrabi, radishes, turnips, and arugula; they’ll do best when directly sown in the garden).
This year I’m focusing my efforts on broccoli, cabbage, and kale. I had my eye on a beautiful purple cauliflower, and I’d love to give brussels sprouts another go, but they didn’t make the final cut and will have to wait for next year.
The Brassicacae family are prolific seed producers, but since they are biennial (producing seed in the second year of growth), there is the challenge of being able to successfully overwinter a plant in Minnesota in order to save seed. It’s the kind of challenge that is right up my alley, but at the same time, brassica seed is a pretty good deal. An inexpensive packet of seed will easily contain a hundred, if not two or three hundred, seeds. Obviously that’s a lot more than most gardeners can use in a lifetime, but the seed will maintain its viability for quite a long time and as long as the seed is untreated, you could also grow the extra seed as sprouts or microgreens.
Starting brassicas from seed is super easy. In fact, they are a pretty great instant gratification start. The germination rate is excellent and reliable. I have never had anything less than 100 percent germination (and yeah, I had no intention of sowing more than one seed per container, but apparently I was distracted and sowed a couple of them twice – oops!). They need a lot of time to grow, but they do germinate quickly (in the course of only a couple of days, under the right conditions). And I mean, really, is there any better sight than two plump, green broccoli cotyledons? Seriously, there’s so much to love!
This year I’m using a variety of different seed starting containers (time to use up some odds and ends!). I started my broccoli in a packet of coir pellets I had on hand, and the cabbage and kale in soil blocks. The broccoli will be moved into larger newspaper pots eventually (as may some of the seedlings in soil blocks, depending on how the spring goes), but they’re sturdy little seedlings and they tolerate transplant well, so that will be an easy task when the time comes.
I am also experimenting with a few winter sown kale plants this year. I re-purposed a grocery store sprouts container by filling it with starter mix and planting four kale seeds inside. I then snapped the cover on and set it outside on our deck where it will wait until Mother Nature wakes it up and the seeds sprout.
The idea is that these seeds, already exposed to the cold, will sprout earlier, giving them a head start and resulting in more cold hardy seedlings. This is the first time I’ve tried winter sowing, so I have no idea what to expect, but I am curious to see how these plants compare to the indoor starts throughout the season.
So which brassicas are growing in my garden this year?
Kale: I selected Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch for it’s extra cold hardiness, and rounded it out with Lacinato and Red Russian/Rugged Jack for some color and texture interest. Red Russian is also supposed to be really tender and good in fresh salads.
Cabbage: I had a really hard time narrowing down my cabbage selections, but I ultimately landed on Red Express Cabbage and Premium Late Flat Dutch for traditional heads of red and green cabbage. I am also trying Cour di Bue, an heirloom with oxheart-shapped heads, and Wong Bok, a Chinese Napa-type cabbage.
So many salad opportunities lie ahead this summer, I can hardly stand it!
So far, we’re off to a great start! The broccoli is growing, and the kale and cabbage that I started yesterday are already showing signs that germination is eminent, thanks to our cast iron radiators that double as germination heat mats this time of year. The next big milestone will be the first sighting of the true leaves!