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Broad beans and brassicas

Broad beans: One of the easiest crops to grow, broad beans are pretty bombproof and make a great beginner’s crop from seed. They’re also enriching the soil by `fixing’ nitrogen from the air. When it’s time to plant spring crops, leave the roots in the ground for maximum benefit.

  • The tradition is to plant on Anzac Day, but any time from autumn through until spring is okay.
  • Add a light dusting of wood ash or potash to the broad bean bed to encourage a good crop, while helping to keep away rust diseases like chocolate spot.
  • Plant seeds 5cm deep, 15-20cm apart, in rows 30cm apart.
  • Pinch tips out when plants are about knee high (to an adult).
  • They need some support like a tipi of canes, or strong stakes at each corner of the bed around which string can be wrapped. Add levels of string as the plants grow taller.
  • Companion plants are carrots, brassicas, celery, calendula.

Brassicas: (the cabbage family) need to be planted by March if you want to be eating them over winter. If you put them in when the weather has already cooled, they’ll sit there all winter without actually growing. Kale is the easiest crop for beginners and has the advantage of being pickable leaf by leaf, so a few plants can keep you in greens all winter. Cauliflower and broccoli demand high nutrition, so pat yourself on the back if you are growing these to a large size.

Brassica seedlings will need protection from cabbage white butterflies, whose caterpillars can shred plants within days. A physical barrier like insect netting (or old net curtains) is good, otherwise, spray with bT (there are several brands now available). This parasite kills the caterpillars without harming other insects.

The brassica family: kale, cabbage, pak choi, cauliflower, broccoli, mustard greens.

  • These do best with lots of good compost and seaweed. Add plenty of nitrogen (eg manure) for leafy cabbages and kale, with extra potassium (e.g. wood ash) for 'headers' like caulis and broccoli.
  • Plant a variety, for different harvesting times – you may not be picking sprouting broccoli until spring, but you’ll be glad of it then. Purple frilled kale, or purple cauliflowers, add some colour to the bed. If you’re not growing from seed, the newspaper parcels at the supermarket are good value but plant the next day if possible.
  • Sometimes it’s hard to find space for the winter crops when summer ones are still growing, but getting in brassicas early (March at the latest) is crucial if you want to be eating them before spring. Make new beds if needs be.
  • Plant seedlings lower than they were in the punnets, firming them in `up to their necks’ (i.e. right up to the lowest set of `leaves’ - actually the seed leaves or cotyledons). This reduces wind rock, a common reason for crop failure - it’s hard to grow big when you’re being shaken back and forth by every gust. Compost can also be piled up around brassica stems as they grow.
  • Water in each seedling with a cup of liquid feed (seaweed or manure tea). Keep watered in dry spells.
  • Protect from cabbage white butterflies and their green caterpillars using netting or a bT spray, bT is an organic bacterial spray that interferes with caterpillars appetites, starving them to death without affecting other insects. Derris Dust, formerly organically approved, has now been linked to nerve damage and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Mustard is a great, easy cover crop over winter. It can be broadcast-sown (sown directly onto beds) in autumn; young leaves are picked for salads (delicious with something sweet, like grapes, and a squeeze of lime juice); older leaves can be cooked in stir-fries or boil ups and any leftover leaves and stems can be dug in as green manure or put on the compost heap. Mustard is rich in sulphur, a natural steriliser, so it’s good to grow where you have had disease problems.


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