Cool-weather crops -- 1-28-14

(This week’s picture is a close-up of a stalk of broccoli, one of the so-called cole crops. To enlarge the picture, please click on it.)

With snow on the ground and the high temperatures only in the mid-teens, it’s tough to even think about planting anything in the vegetable garden, even a group of veggies that thrive in cooler weather. They’re referred to as the “cole crops” in the Maryland Extension Garden Glossary, which describes them as members of the species Brassica oleracea, including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.

Cole crops aren’t called that because some of their members, such as cabbage, end up in that popular summer side dish known as cole slaw. Their name is derived from the Latin word “caulis,” which means stem.

If you think of your vegetable garden as a multi-act play, the cole crops and some other lovers of cool weather are the first actors to take the stage. If you can think of yourself as the director, there are some choices you’ll have to make, assuming of course that your garden soil is ready for these transplants.

Question No. 1: Will you grow your own transplants from seed, or buy seedlings from garden centers or nurseries? If you buy from a nursery, you’ll have a better chance of making sure what variety you’re buying and how it was cared for. Some “big box” stores don’t grow their own transplants and their staff people might not know whether the plant was “forced” to mature or what chemicals were used on it.

But the best reason to grown your own transplants is that you can keep accurate records of everything you do -- when you plant, what soil medium you use and the type of fertilizer you apply.

This is not to say that those who buy transplants are taking the lazy way. We all have only so much time to devote to our hobbies. And so, it might be best to start with nursery-grown transplants, then grow your own the following season.

The earliest date you can plant some cole crops, such as cabbage, is March 15, so you need to plant seeds for transplants in mid February. ( A full list of recommended planting dates is available at extension.umd.ed, where you’ll search for HG 16.

Here are some steps you need to take for planting seeds:

1. Choose a good quality soiless potting mixture, one that’s not too heavy on the peat moss. Otherwise, it might tend to dry out too quickly or be a bit too acid on the pH acidity/alkalinity scale. Plant seeds two times as deep as their diameter.

2. Decide on a light source. Light from a windowsill will work, but if you have a week of cloudy days, what then? It would be better to use 48-inch fluorescent tubes, which easily fit into an economical “shop light” fixture that will have hooks for hanging.

Buy one tube marked “cold” and the other marked “warm” to provide the full spectrum of light plants need. I’ve used the so-called “grow light” tubes, but aside from producing better looking transplants, they’re not worth the extra cost.

“Hang the fixture from what?” you might ask. I recommend a rack built from two-by-fours, with enough chain so that you can raise the light as the transplants get taller. Start with the lights three to four inches away from plants.

If your transplant table is in a cool place, like a finished basement, you might want to invest in a root heater or mat to improve germination. Once the plant develops its first true leaves, turn off the heater, or your plants will get tall and spindly.

Run the light 12 to 14 hours a day. And, unless your memory is better than mine, use a timer so your plants aren’t in the dark for a weekend if a family emergency hits.

What about fertilizer? A week to 10 days after sowing seeds, apply a liquid fertilizer made from concentrate that should be a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10. Repeat every three weeks.

As for watering, too much is as bad as not enough. It surprised me when I first found out, but plant roots need air, too. A soil that’s too compact and too soggy leaves the plant more vulnerable to diseases. If you use peat pots, slit the sides when you plant so the roots don’t have to fight their way through what can be a tough covering. And don’t leave the peat pot’s edges on the soil surface, where they can wick away ground moisture.

Finally, when your transplants are ready for the garden, try to keep them from being a meal for cole crop pests, which include root maggots, crucifer flea beetles and cabbage aphids. If you don’t want to use pesticides, there are a couple of strategies.

One is putting each plant in the center of an eight-inch piece of cardboard with a hole for the plant punched in the middle. When the fly lays its eggs at the base of the plant, the larvae must travel across the cardboard to get to the soil. Many don’t make it across, which is bad for them and good for you.

The second and easier alternative is to place what is called a floating row cover over the plants. If you screen the plants in, the insects can’t get to them.

It’s all a bit of trouble, but if you enjoy nurturing things and watching them grow, it’s worth it.

(Did you enjoy this column? If you have suggestions or constructive criticism, please e-mail me at bobmaginnis@myactv.net. Feel free to use a pseudonym or “pen name“ when sharing.)

 

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