Gardening

When it comes to being a great green, the brassica family of cauliflower and kale does it easy. By Helen Razer.

Singing the praises of kale and cauli, baby

The popular kale is easy to grow outdoors or indoors.
Credit: DEEDAVEE EASYFLOW/FLICKR

If there were a Department of Comedic References, it would confirm that jokes involving kale ceased to be funny through overuse months ago. But try telling this to Iris at number 10, the street’s best gardener and foremost critic of the “health” drinks so popular with our neighbourhood’s working women. When she recently learned that the chief ingredient of the travel cups toted each morning on the way to the train was “war cabbage”, she laughed and laughed. So much so, I elected for reasons of health safety not to tell my elderly mentor that (a) this brassica juice was called a “Green Smoothie” or (b) in a 2013 census of US baby names, more than 250 newborns had been afflicted with the designation “Kale”.

Kale, a member of the cruciferous vegetables family, is farcically easy to raise. A means of sustenance for Europe’s mediaeval farmers, it was selectively bred into a more digestible cabbage and largely disappeared. Recommended for cultivation by home gardeners during World War II due to its fast-growing nature even in poor soil, kale is something Iris remembers as a dismal flower of endurance. 

Certainly, any home gardener who ever scattered seeds begins to see the spindly crucifer less as a superfood than as broccoli’s ghost. Our modern rule of value tells us that anything that simple to produce cannot have merit. But I will say the profuse and drought-tolerant Tuscan kale, once known as “Italian cabbage”, not only offers fronds of great rococo charm for months to an otherwise under-performing patch but is also very good in minestrone. Sow it directly in your garden now or protect it from critters and the hungry sun by raising it in a little seed mix under cover. I’ve germinated it in every season and although I can no longer abide it in any form save for soup bulker, I keep it around to hide the shame of my ailing zucchinis in summer or my loose cauliflower curds in spring. More of that powerful crucifer shortly.

For the moment, if you do start the day with a kale-based beverage that would make old gardeners giggle, there is absolutely no reason not to save a bundle of money and nutrients and pick it fresh from a plant you grew yourself. Even if you have absolutely no outdoor space. In thrilling news for the wellness faithful, kale can be grown indoors.

There are several miniature varieties of the veg that once sustained unhappy serfs. Blue dwarf seed is widely available through mail order and your chief hurdle in readying it for the vitamin blender will be light. Plants that struggle to find a source for photosynthesis become “leggy” and their all-stem, no-substance shape offers all the formless bitterness of Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!. If you happen to have a spot by a north-facing window bathed in sunlight for much of the day, use that. Otherwise, you’re going to need a “grow light”. Anything of the sort that might be seized by drug enforcement officials will be both terribly expensive and embarrassing, so try to purchase a fluorescent fixture from an online hydroponic store. Choose one that does not emit dub reggae but just a modest blue or cool spectrum for leafy growth. Buy a full-spectrum lamp if you’re considering indoor experimentation with fruits or flowers. These can be had for as little as $60 to light a limited area. And, yes, I realise these instructions are complex and potentially costly but that $5 bunch of withered brassica you’re buying thrice weekly ain’t exactly free and easy. 

The indoor or small-space gardener should place dwarf seeds – kale seedlings are difficult to buy – into pots of about 30 centimetres filled with potting mixture, and water when moved with an atomiser. When the babies shoot and develop “true leaves” – not the first pitiful set that looks like a mutant clover, but the stronger-seeming uppermost pair that emerges second – feed them with a weak nitrogen solution. With some slight size modifications and perhaps a reflective surface to make the best use of your light, you can cultivate efficient growers such as sprouting broccoli or Chinese crucifers kai-lan or pak choy in this manner. Hasten maturity with good medium and a little fish emulsion or seaweed. Yes, your kitchen smells like old knickers but so, as Iris knows, does that nitrogen-rich potion you’re drinking every morning.

Brassicas with the large, compact heads of a cauli, a cabbage or the truly Instagram-able Romanesco broccoli – that’s the twirly one that recalls a green fractal set such as I once saw projected onto flummoxed koalas at a bush rave back in ’99 – are produced by some devout indoor gardeners. Such hobbyists, however, are well beyond both sanity and advice and the rest of us should move the cultivation of our more regal crucifers out to the yard or the balcony. 

Many Australian gardeners can raise from seed right now a range of caulis. In southern areas, you should have them transplanted and mature well before the first bite of cold. In more humid zones, you may wish to wait a month or two before germinating this Goldilocks who likes her soil sweet and its temperature just right. Some urban farmers swear by containers for cauliflowers as caterpillar control, a real problem in the warmer months when the plant is establishing for autumn or winter harvest. Personally, I feel more Farm Girl using my patch, into which I regularly turn the very best compost and manure an overpriced pitchfork can convey. Also, I do enjoy the pseudo-scientific boast that I have raised the pH for my alkaline-loving flowers – this basically amounts to digging a bit of garden lime through my soil. 

Whether growing in a pot or a bed, tamp down your soil, because a well-compacted medium produces the best and tightest curd. And, when the white corona blooms to the size of a hen’s egg, gather up the largest outer leaves and fasten them together at the top with a rubber band, old stockings or twine. This “blanching” prevents discolouration of the snowy globe and is entirely cosmetic. But given that you have fed this hungry princess slavishly for months, watered her carefully and checked her dainty feet for maggot infestation and her underskirts for bugs, a little grooming seems only proper.

Of course, one could grow the purple or green heirloom varieties. Apparently, I am a crucifer conservative and it’s snowball or nothing for me. But this is no reason for you not to be a rainbow-cultivating liberal. 

Nor is it cause to devote all that soil preparation to a single member of the brassica family. The brussels sprout, germinating now, is another winter noble that will only prosper in frost-prone zones. All gardeners wait a month to raise your cabbage from seed and transplant it in late autumn. Then follow the cauli instructions, save for the tamped soil. Broccoli can be germinated now and planted out when it is sturdy. It should be tended, as you do all brassicas, with a foliar feed; which is to say, through the leaves and not at the root. Experiment with kai-lan, bok choy and other small plants used in Asian cuisine. Like kale, these slender edibles tolerate a range of conditions.

Unfortunately, I have little to say about kohlrabi. It has a marvellous flavour and can be grown throughout the seasons. However, its resemblance to fennel, an evil and indestructible garden bully, frightens me. I broadcast some seeds in the spring of 2010, they shot up to the sun, and years after I felled the liquorice giant for which I can find no regular culinary use, his downy aftershocks pop up in every nook.

Of all the cold-climate crops, however, it is on the nimbus of the very particular cauliflower that I am transported to the heavens. And on this matter of cabbages and kings, Iris and I are in rare accord. 

In my view, all of this cauli fuss is rewarded by the flavour and beauty of the favourite vegetable of Louis XIV, who demanded it with every meal. It may be other crucifers that inspire sensations of command in you. But I can never quite believe I have helped produce these blond florets and, even when they’re a little loose, or as they say in cauliflower circles “ricey”, the bright shock of colour and taste brings hope to those drab garden months when even the pest-repelling marigold has given up its diffident bloom.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 31, 2015 as "Kale to the chief". Subscribe here.

Helen Razer
is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.