The brassica family is an important plant family in cool climate gardens. You can grow them in your polytunnel or outside in your garden. Wherever you grow them, there are a huge range of different options to choose from. Also known as the ‘cabbage’ family, brassica crops include a number of familiar crops, including cabbage, of course, but also broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, turnips and more.
Why Grow Heritage Brassica?
Choosing a number of different heritage brassicas to grow can allow you to increase the diversity of crops that you grow. By picking the right options, and sowing seeds at the right times, you can have a range of different brassicas to eat throughout the whole year. Brassicas will be sown in early spring and right through to summer, and will likely find a place in your polytunnel throughout the year. They often have an important place in a winter planting scheme.
Brassica are leafy vegetables that have a wide range of nutritional and health benefits. Growing a wide variety of these types of crops can keep your diet healthy and varied throughout the year.
At the supermarket, you will be lucky to see anything other than a few fairly standard examples of leafy vegetables from this plant family. But growing your own allows you to broaden the range of brassicas you eat, and enjoy much more variety in your garden and on your table.
By growing more rare or unusual heritage brassica varieties, and saving your own seed, you can also contribute to keeping these varieties alive. Growing and preserving heritage crops is very important to crop diversity and the future sustainability of food production.
Interesting and Unusual Brassicas To Grow
So which heritage brassica varieties should you grow? Of course, there are plenty of options to choose from. You could choose to less usual heritage variety of a familiar brassica crop, or branch out to discover new types of brassica all together. Here are ten brassica varieties that fall into one of these two categories that you could consider:
Purple Sprouting Broccoli: If, when you think of broccoli, you only picture those large, green heads with tightly packed florets, then purple sprouting broccoli may come as a revelation. Those who are new to polytunnel gardening may not know that what we think of as ‘normal’ broccoli is called Calabrese. If you have not come across it before, I would recommend purple sprouting broccoli as my top pick.
Rather than throwing up one large, green head, purple sprouting broccoli has a profusion of smaller, purple flowering shoots. These appear in the period in spring traditionally known as the ‘hungry gap’, which means they are great for filling in this gap in your harvesting schedule. The sprouts are delicious, and you can eat the leaves too. Plant in late spring one year, and it will be ready from around the beginning of March the following year.
‘Ottobrino’ Romanesco: Romanesco was formerly little known, but is gradually becoming more popular as it appears on supermarket shelves. This fractal and unusual looking vegetable is a sort of cross between a cauliflower and a broccoli. This is one good variety of this crop to choose. Unlike most other romanesco cauliflowers, which mature in the spring, this one matures in autumn. You can sow it in late spring, and harvest usually between October and November. With a polytunnel and some extra protection, you might even be able to harvest it to enjoy its amazing Christmas-tree like shape on your festive table.
Sicilia Violetta (Purple Cauliflower):If you would like to grow other autumn maturing cauliflowers, how about trying something different this year? This variety from Sicily has an amazing purple head. Sow it in spring and it will be ready to harvest in around November. Cauliflowers do not just come in white – so why not experiment with growing ones with heads of different hues?
Asturian Tree Cabbage: The cabbage is, of course, a staple in many cool climate gardens. There are a wide range of cabbages to grow for every season. Plant the right varieties and you can be eating cabbage all year round. But if you are bored of growing more traditional headed cabbages, then this truly astonishing tree cabbage is a rare option that you should definitely consider. It grows like a cabbage but is harvested like a kale. It forms into plants with a tall stalk, topped by a loose head of large cabbage leaves. Simply take a leaves a few at a time to eat all year round.
One of the great things about this plant is that it can be a short-lived perennial – lasting 2-3 years if you cut it back when it tries to flower. It will simply regrow new growth in spring – ideal for fresh cabbage during the ‘hungry gap’.
‘Roodnerf’ Brussels Sprout: Brussel sprouts are obviously a very familiar crop. But rather than growing standard seeds, why not try this old-fashioned heritage Dutch variety? It is well regarded as one of the best old sprout varieties still in existence, and has been found to be particularly resistant to insects and disease. It is tall, so not good for windy sites, but could be ideal for growing within the shelter of a polytunnel.
‘Seven Hills’ Brussels Sprout: This is another heritage variety of Brussels sprouts, and a heritage brassica that is well-worth keeping alive. It is very rare and only a few kilos of seed are produced worldwide each year. By growing it and saving seed, you can do your part to help keep it alive. It is a shorter variety, great for exposed sites, and stands up well in winter. It has very tight and closely packed sprouts – perfect for Christmas dinner and other meals through the winter months.
Asparagus Kale: Kale is another common brassica crop, and is incredibly easy to grow. Again, there are a wide range of different varieties to choose from – from sturdy and dependable Sutherland kale, to curly kale and Tosca di Nero. There are a number of decorative and delicious examples of kale in different shades of green and purple. But if you want something more unusual to try, how about this interesting example. This is a hardy kale with grey-green leaves – but it has been selected for its sweet, tasty shoots. So as well as harvesting its leaves like any normal kale, you can also harvest the shoots, which are a little like a green version of sprouting broccoli.
‘Azur’ Kohlrabi: Kohlrabi is a favourite for some, but completely unknown to others. If you are unfamiliar with kohlrabi, it is an unusual-looking brassica variety which is grown mostly for its bulbous stem, which can be eaten raw or cooked in a wide range of recipes. Kohlrabi comes in both green and purple, and this is an interesting deep purple variety that was released in 1976. It has been bred for quick production of its purple bulbs. You can sow it through spring for consumption in summer, or in June for an autumn harvest.
Raab (Cima Di Rapa ‘San Marzano’): Raab, related to turnip, is a brassica variety that is well known on the continent, but far less familiar in the UK. Though it is related to the turnip, it is more like sprouting broccoli. It produces delicious shoots that are like sprouting broccoli, but with a somewhat spicy flavour.Sow in early spring under cover, or in mid-late summer harvested in around 50-60 days from sowing. It is lovely raw in salads or cooked in a range of recipes.
Huauzontle (Aztec Broccoli): Certainly the most unusual plant on this list is huauzontle. This plant is also known as Aztec broccoli. It is technically not a broccoli at all, and is not actually a member of the brassica family. Though it is actually botanically classified as Chenopodium berlandieri, I include it on this list. This is because it is used in the same way as brassicas are, and resembles them in taste. (It has a taste somewhere between spinach and broccoli.) Plant them in April/ May and you will be able to harvest the flower shoots and leaves all the way from mid-summer right through to October.
There are just some examples of the interesting heritage plants that you could grow in your polytunnel garden.
Have you grown any of the above in your polytunnel? Which other heritage brassica varieties would you recommend? Let us know in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.