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February 20, 2017

Time for getting an early start on cool-season crops

Photo/Fauquier Education Farm
Some of the cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale harvested last year at the Fauquier Education Farm.
By Jim Hankins
Fauquier Education Farm
Executive Director

On the morning of Feb. 1, I was greeted by a sight that has never lost its charm for me. I had dropped by the Fauquier Education Farm to water the seed trays we have in our little 12- by-12-foot greenhouse house and discovered the first newly sprouted plants of this growing season.

Over the years, I am sure I’ve planted millions of seeds, but it still makes me smile inside when I see the new plants poke their heads out of the ground. I have become keenly aware that we can try to do everything right, being careful with soil depth, light, water and proper temperature, but I can’t make any seed sprout by force of my own will. Most of the time it works just fine, but sometimes it doesn’t work at all, or germination will be spotty and unpredictable. It still seems a miracle when all goes as planned and hoped for, and I still delight in being able to participate in this miracle.

The seed trays in our greenhouse are all planted with cool season crops that belong to the same big closely-related family. They are called the Brassicas, and the family includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, mustard and many of the tasty Asian greens like tatsoi, mizuna, bok choi and Chinese cabbage. We call them cool season crops because they are very frost tolerant and in fact will be much healthier when planted in the early spring or in the cool fall months. They get stressed in the heat of the summer and will not produce well then.

Our first seed trays are planted with five different varieties of cabbage, two types of broccoli, four different kinds of cauliflower and quite a few trays of a variety of Chinese cabbage called Rubicon. The seedlings will happily survive a few frosts. But, getting the seeds to germinate takes a warmer temperature; so we are starting them in our heated greenhouse. They will stay in the greenhouse for three weeks and then be moved up to our unheated high tunnel to make room for the next batch of seed trays. We will let them grow a few more weeks in the high tunnel before being planted into the field in mid-March. It may seem like a lot of effort, but these first 55 trays of 72 cell trays will give us 3,880 little plants that can be expected to yield a few tons of highly nutritious produce for area food banks.

If we had planted the seed in the field this early, they would just stay dormant and not sprout until we start getting warmer day time temperatures in March. Often, when we plant seeds too early for them to germinate, they just rot instead of staying dormant and we have wasted time, money and effort. Getting to know the proper season for planting each type of vegetable is one of the most basic keys to success as a gardener. There are numerous planting guides out there. Most good seed catalogs have this information, and most often it is printed right on the seed packs.

The old-time gardeners were not growing vegetables for the fun of it; they were feeding themselves and their families, and many of those old-time garden sayings still hold very true. Two dates have traditionally been very important in the spring garden calendar: Plant your potatoes around St. Patrick’s Day and don’t put your tomatoes out before Mother’s Day.

That mid-March time frame is generally the right time for planting all of the cool season crops. This is when we will be planting potatoes at the Education Farm, but it is also when we will also be transplanting our little 6-week-old cabbage and broccoli plants into the field. It is an excellent time, in fact the best time, to start planting other cool season crops like kale, peas, carrots and lettuce by directly seeding them into your garden. You can plant these cool season crops in April as well. But, if you’re waiting until May, you might find that it will be too warm for them as they mature and they won’t yield quite as well for your family dinner.

Another big advantage to get getting that early start in your garden is pest control. It is a heartbreaking experience to carefully nurture a broccoli plant and get a beautiful harvest, but then find that once you have it steamed that it was full of cabbage loopers, little caterpillars that got cooked with your broccoli. We have found at the Education Farm that our earliest round of broccoli and cabbage will mature before the cabbage loopers show up in the spring. As it gets warmer these pests can do quite a bit of damage, not to mention ruin a meal when they show up after being cooked.

You can also boost that early start in the garden by protecting your plants with floating row covers. What this means is covering your crop with a very thin fabric blanket that will help protect them from frost but also will keep out insects and increase the plant’s health by protecting from wind and the harshest effects of the sun at mid-day. We will be using row covers on quite a few crops this year and have found them to be one of the easiest means to insure success and increase yield.

For the last few years, we have been covering our Chinese cabbage with row covers and have seen a dramatic effect on our production. These plants are Brassicas and are not adversely affected by frost, but there is a tiny pest called a flea beetle that can destroy them in just a few days. By covering the plants with a row cover on the day they are transplanted into the field, we keep the flea beetles from ever reaching the plants. But the benefits of the row cover go much farther. It will create a micro-climate under the fabric that boost the plant vigor in phenomenal ways. In side-by-side demonstrations, we have shown that the Chinese cabbage under the row cover will be very much larger than the same variety planted without the cover, and they will mature earlier. And very importantly, when grown under a row cover these cabbages can easily be grown without using any pesticide.

We will have workshops at the Fauquier Education Farm to show the public how these early spring crops have performed and talk about how we have raised them. On June 1, we will have our workshop on “Floating Row Covers and Low Tunnels.” And on June 7, we will have another called, “The Colorful World of Cauliflower,” which will showcase our field trial of four different varieties of cauliflower.

Of course, you can come out and volunteer to get direct hands-on learning about everything we are doing. All the produce we grow is donated to local food banks, so you won’t just be volunteering to learn, you’ll also be lending a helping hand to those in greatest need in our community. We will start asking for volunteers in mid-March. Hope to see you there!

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