Brassicas to crow about

The cabbage family are worthy tenants of any kitchen garden, but they can be tricky to grow, particularly with predators about. Anna Pavord has some tips
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The Independent Online
The garden is full of activity. Not mine, the rooks'. There are already 36 nests swaying magisterially in the top branches of beech, sycamore, ilex and horse chestnut. We do well for kindling while they are nest building. The ground underneath the trees is thick with their dropped sticks.

They have been doing a good job de-mossing the lawn, too. They must be collecting it to line their nests. Their gregarious clatter starts even before it is light when they wheel out from the trees like small dark pieces of the departing night. You can be fond of baggy-trousered, gregarious rooks. I am not sure I could ever fall in love with the more solitary crow.

And rooks, like the easiest sort of weekend guests, take themselves off during the day, feeding in different pastures. They do not, like the wretched pigeons and collared doves, expect all their meals to be provided from the garden.

For the first time for years, we have a decent crop of purple sprouting broccoli. That is entirely due to the net, four-inch mesh, which has covered the plants since the autumn and protected them from pigeon raids. These spring-sprouting broccolis are long-term tenants in a kitchen garden. Our seed (Unwins, 89p) went in on 11 April last year. In a small garden, this laid-back attitude to production may be difficult to accommodate.

Unlike calabrese, which has one heavy central head, the traditional sprouting broccolis have a shower of much smaller heads. The purple is hardier and more prolific than the white. There are early and late forms of both kinds.

If cauliflower, as Mark Twain wrote, "is nothing but cabbage with a college education", then calabrese and broccoli have the PhDs of the family. The names are Italian but it seems that the broccolis came into Italy originally from the eastern Mediterranean, some time during the 17th century. Philip Miller, who wrote one of the first gardening dictionaries in 1724, called it "Italian asparagus".

It is certainly easier to grow broccoli than cauliflower, though I was not very successful with the broccoli `Romanesco' (Suttons, £1.25) last year. This is a gorgeous looking lime-green broccoli which has domed curds arranged in a curious spiral to make a head quite unlike any other of its family. You sow it in early May to eat in early winter.

The usual advice with brassicas is to sow seed thinly in drills from March onwards and transplant the seedlings to their permanent positions in early summer. The problem is that the transplanting gives them a severe shock, however much earth you try and dig up with the roots while moving them.

This was perhaps why `Romanesco' and the calabrese `Eusebio' (Johnsons, £1.99) shot up into spindly, premature heads. The calabrese was sown on the 25 March last year and should have been producing juicy heads by July. But it did not and this year I am going to try a different growing method.

Instead of sowing seed along a drill, you can set two or three seeds "at stations" along the row, spacing the little clusters at six-inch intervals. Then you pull out the weaker seedlings of each group and leave the boss plant to grow on in situ.

In principle this sounds a good idea. We shall see. If the ground ever dries off, I am hoping to sow calabrese `Shogun' (Mr Fothergill, £1.39) this week. It won an Award of Garden Merit in the Royal Horticultural Society's trials.

I was deeply into cabbages last year, never having gone in for them in a big way before. I tried the red cabbage `Ruby Ball' (Mr Fothergill, £1.25) and `Minicole' (Unwins, £1.99) which makes small rounded heads, ready for cutting from early autumn. It is the variety often recommended for gardeners who are short of space, and has the useful habit of standing a long time in the garden without deteriorating.

Despite trying to sow thinly, I had far too many plants of both. This year I am cheating and getting in starter plants instead. Marshalls is offering 10 plants of `Ruby Ball' for £1.85 and, as long as you order at least four sets of plants, it makes only a minimal charge for postage. The plants are sent out at the end of May by first-class post.

So I need another three sets of plants to go with `Ruby Ball'. Marshalls is offering a summer cabbage called `Duncan', a pointed type that, from a March sowing, produces heads to cut in July. But there are plenty of other things to eat in July.

Marshalls is also offering two kinds of calabrese: `Mercedes' which matures early in July with big, dark green heads and `Trixie' that crops slightly later. But I want to try calabrese from seed, without the need to transplant, so those are both out - for this year at least. I may find my experiment sowing "at stations" does not work.

Brussels sprouts would be worth having, because you scarcely need more than 10 plants to eat well through the autumn and winter. Marshalls offers `Peer Gynt' (10 plants for £1.85) which is an adaptable animal, succeeding in a wide range of soils. It is early though, cropping from September onwards. Will there still be sprouts for Christmas?

I was tempted to grow `Rubine' (Chiltern, £1.03), a Brussels sprout which is rich ruby red in sprout and leaf - but although it is said to taste excellent, Joy Larkcom, the queen of vegetable growing, says it crops poorly.

Back to the starter plants. Cauliflowers are on offer, two different types. `Plana', one of Marshalls offers, should be ready in September if set out when the plantlets arrive in late May. I had little success with cauliflower last year, although the variety I grew, `Dok Elgon' (Unwins, £1.45), is supposed to be the sweetest and most reasonable of cauliflowers. `Plana' (where do they get these names from?) might be better.

The final choice is difficult. I think it might be celery, which is quite a fiddle to raise from seed. There are two kinds on offer: one white and one pink - or half-pink. Marshalls punctiliously points out that the pink variety `Pink Ice' is unstable. Only half the delivery are likely to develop into pink self-blanching plants. The rest will be white.

It has been such a mild season that the self-blanching celery `Victoria' (Dobies, 89p) I grew last year is now growing lush new sticks, rising optimistically out of a splayed matrix of split, ribbed veteran stalks. Self-blanching celery is not fully hardy, so this spring crop is a bonus.

S E Marshall & Co, Wisbech, Cambs PE13 2RF (0945 583407)