The Garden Patch: Grow (and eat) your broccoli; it’s good for you

052514-garden-excericiseWe’ve been writing about the most popular vegetables from the garden and this is no time to quit – we have a few more to learn about – probably the ones we’ve been raising all along. But, maybe we can improve on what we’re doing! Let’s see – let’s begin today with broccoli.

Broccoli that matures during cool weather is the sweetest you’ll ever taste! High temperatures as broccoli matures can cause bitter, loose heads to form, leaving you with smaller and less tasty florets. In fall, broccoli produces bigger and tastier heads, as plants mature during cooler weather.

Sun and soil. Broccoli grows best in full sun and in soil that is slightly acidic (pH between 6.0 and 6.8), rich in organic matter and well drained, yet consistently moist. The right pH and the organic matter help ensure that nutrients, particularly essential micronutrients such as boron are readily available. (A boron deficiency can cause broccoli to develop hollow stems, but adding too much is toxic to plants, so a soil test is essential.)

Planting. Fall broccoli has specific spacing requirements. If you’re gardening intensively in a raised bed, space your plants 15 to 18 inches apart; for gardening in rows, set the transplants 12 to 24 inches apart within the row and space the rows 18 to 36 inches apart. Be sure to set transplants slightly deeper in the ground than they were in the pot.

Growing. Broccoli is a moderately heavy feeder, so work in 2 to 4 inches of rich compost or a thin layer of well aged manure before planting. The best time to side-dress (scratch a little nitrogen-rich, such as fish meal or aged manure, into the soil around the plant’s base) sprouting types that have been over wintered is in late winter or early spring when growth resumes.

Offer cold-weather protection with floating row covers, which add 4 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit of warmth, shielding harvests from heavy freezes and extending the season up to 4 weeks. Or cover broccoli with tunnels or a coldframe, which can boost daytime temperature by 10 to 30 degrees F.

Problem solving. Row covers provide some protection from pest insects, but the best protection is to grow healthy plants in healthy soil. If your broccoli suffers an infestation of destructive caterpillar pests such as cabbage loopers, you can control them with Bacillus thuringiensis. Var. kurstaki, a naturally occurring bacteria that stops the pests from chewing but is harmless to beneficial insects. Cabbage loopers and cabbageworms sometimes hide in broccoli heads. To avoid surprises in the kitchen, soak heads in salt water for 15 minutes before cooking, which will drive out any hitchhikers.

Harvesting. Harvest when the central head is fully formed but before the buds begin to open and flower. Cut 6 to 7 inches below the head. You can encourage extended sideshoot production by side-dressing.

OK! Now, let’s move on. I love this stuff … cabbage!

Cabbage. Pac choi, napa cabbage, choy sum and tatsoi are some of the most popular Asian cabbages. Compared to the familiar heading cabbage, they have subtly different flavors and textures and are easier to grow. Why not try both cabbage types this season?

Sun and Soil. Cabbage needs full sun and well-drained, rich soil. Add one shovelful of compost to each planting hole as you plant transplants. If you’re working with poor soil, amend the planting area with about 3 pounds of alfalfa meal per 100 square feet at planting time as well.

Planting. Check the seed packet for specific planting times. You can direct-seed Asian cabbages outside as soon as the soil can be worked in spring.

For fall crops, timing will vary depending on the variety you’re growing.

Growing. At planting time, put a cutworm collar around each transplant. Shade seedbeds of young plants on hot days until they become adapted to the garden. Pest problems are less severe in fall crops. Rotate cabbage family crops each year because they are heavy feeders and rotation will lessen chances of soilborn diseases. Cover seedbeds or transplants with row covers and seal the edges to keep out pests. For plants that aren’t covered, spray a garlic or hot pepper spray to deter aphids and other pests (but not on leafy crops that are close to harvest).

Problem Solving. If you have large holes in your cabbage leaves, cabbage loopers, imported cabbageworms or slugs and snails may be chewing on them. Look for green caterpillars with white stripes on plants – these are cabbage loopers. Imported cabbageworms are velvety green caterpillars. Handpick these pests as you find them. Since slugs and snails feed at night, you may not find them on plants, but you will probably find silvery slime trails on the plants. Read the asparagus column from a couple of weeks ago to find ways to battle slugs and snails.

Harvesting. When regular cabbage heads reach the size of a softball, squeeze them to test firmness. Check napa cabbage when heads reach about 12 inches tall. A firm head is ready to be cut. Begin cutting individual outer leaves of leafy types about one month after planting, or use the cut-and-come-again technique.

That’s it folks! Now YOU are an expert! Grow that broccoli and cabbage and be the envy of the neighborhood! That’s it for now, next we’ll talk cucumbers. Till next time!


stevehallerSteve Haller, of Osage City, a K-State Research and Extension Master Gardener, writes The Garden Patch, featuring gardening ideas and tips for gardeners in northeast Kansas. In his words: “I am not a horticulturist. By education I am an economist. By experience, I am a marketing guru from a local to an international scale. Gardening was taught to me by my grandfather and my mom, and I’ve been doing it since World War II was going on.”

Steve can be contacted at [email protected], or leave questions or comments below.

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