Growing Cole Crops

by National Gardening Association Editors

Keeping weeds away, watering and fertilzing are ways to insure a strong cole crop harvest.

Away With Weeds!

Weeds aren't much of a problem with transplanted cole crops, especially if you plant in wide rows. Once the plants take hold and develop broad leaves, they shade the soil under the plants. Weeds -- like all plants -- can't grow without adequate light.

Watch out for weeds in your rows of direct-seeded plants for fall, however. The first few weeks your plants are growing is when weeds can damage the crop.

By working the soil and raking it four or five times before planting, you can prevent quite a few weeds. Stirring the top few inches of soil exposes or buries weed seeds that would otherwise sprout.

Once you've planted some cole crop seeds, you can continue this invisible weed-killing method by using a rake or weeding tool to scratch the top 1/4 inch of soil. Be careful, however, not to stir up the seeds you're trying to grow.

When the seedlings are well established, you can cultivate the soil near them as well as the walkways between to keep out weeds. Use a hoe or other weeding tool to disturb the top 1/2 inch of soil every four or five days. Cultivating also aerates the soil, permitting air to get down to the roots of the plants.

Don't ever use a hoe right under the shallow-rooted cole crops. No matter how shallowly you cultivate or how careful you are, you're bound to injure some roots. It's safer to pull weeds there by hand.

Water

Make sure your cole crops stay moist as seedlings and receive a steady supply of water from the time they're up. They need about one inch of water per week.

If you have a rainy spring or fall, you won't have to worry about watering. Unfortunately, every gardening season seems to be drier at times than we'd like, so most of us have to supplement nature's watering occasionally.

Don't water out of sheer habit. If you have clay soil that retains moisture or if it rains hard every week or so, you may not have to water much. But, if you have light, sandy, quick-draining soil, you may have to water more often.

You can monitor rainfall with a rain gauge, or you can check the soil for dryness by digging down a few inches. If you find dry soil below three or four inches, water!

Water the garden thoroughly to a depth of five or six inches to encourage deeper root growth and to spread nutrients throughout the soil.

Evaluate your own garden and use every drop of water wisely; your plants will be healthier for it.

Mulch

Mulch is a protective layer of material such as straw, hay, leaves or grass clippings. Placing four to eight inches of mulch around your garden vegetables prevents weeds, keeps the soil cool and helps retain moisture in the ground around your plants. Mulch is practically a must in the South.

Cole crops don't need to be mulched when the weather and soil are cool. But you can use mulch to provide the cool, moist growing conditions they need if it's hot.

Brussels sprouts have to be in the garden for a number of months before they mature, so it's likely they'll be subjected to some hot, sunny days. Mulching them will help them endure the heat with fewer problems.

One of the benefits of mulch is that it cuts down on weeds by shutting out light to the ground it covers. If you really hate to weed, you can mulch the walkways between your garden rows as well as the vegetables themselves. Try to use a mulching material such as straw that contains few, if any, weed seeds, so you aren't planting more weeds than you prevent.

Black plastic is another type of mulch, but it is used mostly to warm up the soil for heat-loving plants, such as melons and tomatoes. Don't use it on cole crops. Organic mulches are best, as they tend to keep the soil cool.

Side-Dress Fertilizer

Some plants need extra nutrients during their growing period. They either use the initial fertilizer completely or they take such a long time to reach maturity that the fertilizer has been washed away. Giving plants a second dose of nutrients is known as side-dressing.

You usually will want to sidedress broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. The best time to sidedress cabbage is just before it starts to head. The plants will use this boost to produce a second crop once you've harvested the first. Brussels sprouts are in the ground a long time and the foliage is quite dense, so they really respond to a second dose of fertilizer just before they start budding.

To sidedress, simply draw a circle in the soil around the base of the plant, about four inches from the stem. Sprinkle a handful of 5-10-10 or dehydrated manure in the ring and cover it with an inch of soil.

The tender foliage can be burned by the nitrogen in the mixture, so place the plant food a few inches away from the base of the plant. This will also ensure that the nutrients will seep gradually into the soil, reaching the roots a little at a time rather than all at once.

If there's no rain soon after side-dressing, water around the base of the plant to send the nutrients to the roots.



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