Growing Brassica Vegetables

Brassicas are a world of crops, colors, and flavors under a single plant genus.

  • Brassica vegetables are a great addition to the garden and provide lots of nutrients.
    Courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds/William Woys Weaver II;
  • Hilton Chinese is a napa cabbage with crinkled, mild-flavored leaves.
    Courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Ching Chang is a baby bok choy with tender, mild leaves.
    Courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Canton bok choy has thick stems, tasty leaves, and is heat-tolerant.
    Courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Red Express cabbage is cold-tolerant and good for northern states.
    Courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Romanesco Italia is a popular heirloom broccoli variety and has great flavor.
    Courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Turnips are good crops for those with limited space in the garden.
    Photo by Chris Colby
  • It’s important not to plant brassicas in the same area for consecutive growing seasons, as this depletes the soil’s nutrients.
    Photo by David Liebman

Aside from being common garden vegetables, what do cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi have in common? They’re all members of a single species: Brassica oleracea. And for gardeners, there’s plenty more diversity within the Brassica genus.

There’s a multitude of Latin names and cultivars, but the main point is that this single genus yields a tremendous number of food crops, and crops of economic importance. I haven’t even mentioned the roughly 30 other species of brassica, most of which produce some relatively obscure forms of cabbage or mustard. Collectively, brassicas are sometimes referred to as cruciferous vegetables or cole crops, although these designations also include some plants outside of the genus.

Eat Up

Brassica vegetables are nutritious with high levels of vitamin C, fiber, and carotenoids. Compounds in brassicas also have anti-oxidant properties and possibly even anti-cancer properties — the latter is still being studied. Boiling reduces the levels of some of these nutrients, but briefly stir-frying, microwaving, or steaming helps retain the healthful qualities.

Brassica vegetables may be fermented and eaten. Sauerkraut is made from cabbage, and kimchi is made from napa cabbage. Some of the beneficial compounds in the plants are reduced during fermentation, but both are still high in vitamin C and fiber. The low pH of these foods means their vitamin C is more bioavailable.

All parts of brassica vegetables are edible. So, you can eat broccoli and cauliflower leaves, or cabbage inflorescences. In addition, brassicas do not need to be ripe to consume — you can eat their sprouts or leaves at any stage of growth. “Baby” kale, for example, is more tender, and some say better tasting, than mature kale.

Sunny Spot in the Garden

Brassicas grow best in full sun, but will tolerate light shade. They are heavy feeders requiring a lot of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — the NPK of plant fertilizers. An application of compost, or plant fertilizer, to the garden before planting will help with early growth.

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