Friday, December 18, 2009

Fall Vegetables at Colonial Williamsburg

I was walking through Colonial Williamsburg a few weeks ago and was struck by the beauty of the small vegetable garden behind the King's Arms Tavern. The fall crop of cabbages, kales, and other vegetables looked terrific!
The King's Arms Garden, measuring about 60' x 65', has a simple geometric layout that's divided into four main sections, with a circular path and bed in the middle. The center of the garden features a red chokeberry bush (photinia pyrifolia), four cordoned apple trees tied with leather straps, and four white tuteurs (trellises) planted with scarlet runner beans. Two small white outbuildings complete the design.
Now, I have zero experience growing vegetables. It's just never been my thing. But these leafy plants were so dramatic that I'm dying to try them in an ornamental fall planting next year. I think they would look great mixed with pansies and smaller decorative kale. To get to know the plants better I've done a bit of research (all of you who already know something about vegetables, please try not to laugh at me if this is all a bit obvious).

It was a surprise to me that cabbages, kale, collards, broccoli, and brussel sprouts (collectively known as Brassicas, in the Brassicaceae family) are all descended from the same species of plant. According to garden historian Wesley Greene, most botanists agree that all of our modern Brassicas were developed from the wild sea kale (B. oleracea, var., sylvestris) that is native along the sea coast of western and southern Europe.

There are other vegetables in the garden besides brassicas, some of which I knew, but most of which I didn't. After a call to the CW landscape department, I got a list of what's been planted. Garden historian Don McKelvey also met me on site to talk about the varieties growing there.

Artichokes (Cynara cardunculus, Asteraceae family) -This perennial thistle probably originated in the Mediterranean (along with cardoon). Most artichokes won't flower in the first year.Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) - This is a naturally occurring variant of artichoke with less dissected leaves. The flower bud can be eaten like artichokes, but more commonly it is the stems that are eaten. The cardoon in the garden seemed to be a bit more susceptible to the cold weather than the artichokes.
Broccoli (Brassica oleracea, Italica cultivar group) - This cool season biennial, grown as an annual, probably originated about 2,000 years ago in Italy. Unless labeled, it would be impossible for me to differentiate the broccolis (white, green, and purple) from the cauliflower and marrow kale. I hope I have the correct picture below. Broccoli is supposedly one of the easier Brassicas to grow.
Brunswick Cabbage (Brassica oleracea Linne, Capitata cultivar group) Yellow Savoy Cabbage (Brassica oleracea capitata group) - This winter cabbage, named for the Duchy of Savoy, also comes in a green variety.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum, Apiaceae family) The patch in the King's Arms garden is a mix of flat-leafed and curly varieties.
Green Glaze Collards (Brassica oleracea acephala group) - According to Wikipedia, this staple of southern cooking is biennial where winter frosts occur, but perennial in colder areas. Green Glaze has very attractive shiny leaves.
Red Russian Kale (Brassica oleracea acephala group)
Tuscan Kale (Brassica oleracea acephala group) -Also known as lacinato or cavolo nero. This variety of kale has become more popular in the last decade.
Endive (Cichorium endiva, Asteraceae family) - This vegetable is probably of Mediterranean origin and has been used since Roman times and probably longer. The garden has both curly and broad leaf varieties. The curly variety is more commonly grown and supposedly less bitter.
Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis, Lamiaceae family) This woody perennial is originally from the Mediterranean area. It does well in our climate, though harsh winters can damage them. Two large groups of rosemary are planted along the south fence of the garden.
If you want to read more about early varieties of vegetables, Colonial Williamsburg has extensive research by Wesley Greene on their website.

Growing Fall Vegetables
Never having grown vegetables, I'm not about to give advice, but the Virginia Cooperative Extension has some helpful basic information on growing fall vegetables in Virginia, and also a list of varieties recommended for Virginia. Here's their planting date equation:

+ Number of days from seed to transplant if you start your own seed
+ Average harvest period
+ Fall Factor (about two weeks)
= Days to count back from first frost date

The first frost date for Williamsburg, Virginia is around October 15th, although we blew past that by about 2 months this year! You can find information on your frost date from NOAA. So assuming 80 days for a hypothetical crop, and 6 weeks from seed to transplant that would give us 136 days. Subtract that from October 15th and the planting date would be around June 1st. Does that sound right to all you vegetable gardeners out there?

If you're looking for heirloom seeds, you might try You can also pick up seeds for some plants at the Colonial Williamsburg nursery starting in March.

Many thanks to Don McKelvey, Wesley Green, and Susan Dippre for helping me with this post.


Les said...

Thanks for an interesting post. I am glad you ID'd the Tuscan Kale. I saw it used repeatedly at the Denver Botanical Gardens this summer as a foil for flowers in mixed plantings. It was one of the few things not labled.

Every time I see vegetable gardens like this, it momentarily makes me want to pull out ornamentals for something edible.

compost in my shoe said...

We had drinks at that Tavern several years ago, on thanksgiving weekend. I do remember seeing all the fall veggies. they are all so lush and beautiful ornamentally, not to mention tasty! Especially like the cabbages when they start forming heads!

How It Grows said...

Thanks for the comments guys. One thing I forgot to ask the garden historians was if anyone actually used the veggies for anything. I wonder if they'd miss a few leaves?

Jennifer G. Horn said...

Wow, incredible post. Thanks for the info. All I have in my sad little fire escape herb garden is the parsley varieties, perhaps I should try some of the others!

Hartwood Roses said...

I skipped over here from Tidewater Gardener, and I'm really glad I did. It's nice to find another vegetable-challenged gardener. I look forward to spending more time here.


Janet said...

Love that ariel shot of the garden. Great info, as always, and appreciate the tidbit on the artichokes-- thinking about planting one in SC for interesting foliage.