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by Julia Grace
Up until the beginning of the 1996 growing season, I considered myself something of a brassica queen. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, mustard and kale all seemed to grow effortlessly and beautifully under my gentle surveillance here at Mother Earth. However, in the spring of 1996, things started to go terribly wrong and didnt improve as the season progressed, putting me in a much more humble frame of mind to write this article.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, I seed broccoli starts in February inside my unheated and somewhat leaky hoop house. We seed about six trays a week every week until early March. We seed them carefully in flats in a soil mix composed of mostly moistened peat, a handful of compost, some vermiculite and a bit of dolomite lime. I fill the trays to the top, cover the seed with soil mix, but just barely, and cover the tray loosely with black plastic. If we get sun, the seeds germinate in about a week. We uncover them and water gently with a very dilute compost tea.
Its cold, so lots of the starts may seem a bit weak and floppy at first, but most do take hold. When they have true leaves, we transplant them into four inch pots with a mix that is at least half compost, the rest peat and vermiculite and a dash of fertilizer mix (rock phosphate, dolomite and kelp). We have added some nitrogen in the past, but we do better when we let the compost provide the nitrogen, remembering that in the long term we plan to harvest flower buds (broccoli heads), not leaves.
Brassicas are not coddled here. The aim is to have all the brassicas out of the hoop house and outside under a tarp by mid-March. Our greenhouse is small and by then, we need it for tomatoes. Later trays of seedlings may only be thinned, not transplanted. In a good spring (relatively dry and sunny but with some rain, usually at night), we plant out the early varieties in April. The plants are three to four inches high with short, sturdy stalks. I think their hardiness comes from our pushing them out into the elements early on. We plant them in beds approximately 4 x 100 feet, two feet apart in two long rows, one hundred plants per bed. We lay out the drip first and ideally have it running so that the transplant is placed right at the water source. We scoop out a handful of soil, dump in a sprinkle of amendment mix (as above) and two handfuls of compost and plant deep, almost to the first leaf line. Then we mulch with canary reed, and if all goes well, they grow and were only back to harvest, first the main head and thereafter side shoots which we cut right back to the stalk (This keeps side shoots from getting smaller and smaller although you dont harvest as often).
Last season, everything went wrong. For some reason, I forgot the vermiculite in the first mix and the first few weeks of seeding produced baby plants that had to survive in a soil mix that was too dense for good root development. Then the weather was bad. We pushed the season and put our strongest plants in the ground a couple of weeks later than usual but still too early for the ground. The soil seemed too wet to mulch, and besides, we didnt have much mulch because of a hay shortage the year previous. Root maggot had a field day. On reflection, I think its the mulch that has always saved us in the past. We mulched the next batch with weedy mulch and it was almost completely taken over by bindweed. For reasons I still dont completely understand, the main planting, which suffered from neither weeds nor pests, grew ugly little misshapen bumpy plants that produced a third of our normal harvest, much of which was unappetizing. I tried a later planting, but by then the heat and the drought had set in, and the broccoli refused to grow.
We also had a lot of cabbage worms. My friend Eva Temmel crushes mint leaves about the plants at the time of transplanting to deter this little fellow. Aphids enjoyed the cabbages but kindly left the broccoli alone.
So I am back to basics. I tried some new varieties this year and Im tossing them out and going back to Southern Comet as an early variety, Green Valiant as an expensive but fabulous producer for mid summer and Umpqua for the late harvest. I also grow Purple Sprouting broccoli which I start in April, plant out in late May and harvest the next March as a welcome spring vegetable. I am more committed to mulching, even though it slows some of the spring growth and once again, I promise not to try to push the season. I advise all broccoli lovers to pay attention to their rotation, particularly out here on the coast where we harvest brassicas as roots, greens, heads and flowers all year around.
Eliot Coleman suggests that brassicas may do better when compost is applied the previous year. Im going to give it a try. Meanwhile the Purple Sprouting broccoli stands out in the winter garden, looking vibrant and strong. Winds and rains, freezings and thawings are all to come, but it looks like the best broccoli we did in 1996.
P.S. Umpqua and Purple Sprouting are the two open-pollinated varieties that we use. If anyone knows of good mid-season open varieties, please let us know.
Julia Grace is an organic market gardener at Mother Earth Gardens on Salt Spring Island, B.C.
Copyright © 1997. Julia Grace.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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