Seed Starting: Broccoli & Company

In my part of Virginia (the inland plains), the next couple of weeks are the perfect time to start seeds for refined brassicas. The brassica family is a large one. It includes plants like kale, collard greens, and mustard greens, as well as their more genteel cousins: cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and that old favorite broccoli. I say the latter are “more genteel” because they require more luxurious treatment than their sturdier country cousins. They’ve been refined (and inbred) through many generations of selection to achieve their distinctive leaves or flowers, and that means they’re not quite as self-reliant. They need looser soil, more fertilizer, and more water. And they aren’t as cold-hardy (whereas kale and mustard will keep right on chugging through a snowy winter). But if you give them what they need, there’s no real secret to growing them. Apparently.

I’ve actually had only one previous experience growing broccoli: fifteen years ago, before I discovered fertilizer. Or digging. That broccoli was not nearly as eye-catching as I hope this year’s will be, but on the plus side, even when it had to contend with compacted soil, a jungle of weeds, and no fertilizer, it still produced an edible head (albeit very small).

Since then, though, I’ve learned a thing or two. (One would hope!) And so it was with no little confidence that I launched a new brassica operation yesterday afternoon. As I dropped those tiny grayish purple marbles into the soil, I could already see their future selves: three-foot-tall towering giants of broccoli, cauliflower, and red and green cabbage (surrounded by a luxurious growth of orange and yellow nasturtiums: the most beautiful living mulch ever known to trap cabbage white caterpillars).

If you’re interested in starting your own, here are my guidelines, gleaned from a few of my favorite gardening sources:

  • For spring planting, focus on broccoli, cabbage, and possibly cauliflower. If you’re going to do cauliflower in the spring, make sure you select seeds for a spring-planting variety. Cauliflower pays attention to whether the days are getting longer or shorter! Brussels sprouts should only be grown in the fall, as they take a long time to mature. (But they stand up to the winter cold well.)
  • Decide how much you want of each. Broccoli may be your favorite, but it takes the most room. The garden spacings I plan to follow are from Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts. He recommends planting the old-fashioned way, with enough space between plants that it’s easy to use a hoe to weed and you don’t have to water nearly as frequently. (Intensively planted beds are fine for the city, where space is at a premium, but if you have a big yard, spread your plants out, and you’ll find yourself watering less and buying less fertilizer.) I’ll be planting my broccoli 2′ apart in rows 4′ apart. Cauliflower 2′ apart in rows 2′ apart. And cabbage 16″ apart in rows 2′ apart. (That’s how I’m going to get those towering three-foot heads!)
  • Start broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before transplanting to the garden. Transplanting should happen 4-5 weeks before the last expected frost. (In my area of Virginia, the last expected frost is around April 15. Although with the crazy weather we’re having this year, who knows?)
  • I start my seeds in individual cups (anything I can find around the house that holds at least a cup of soil and can have holes punched in the bottom for drainage). I fill them with a soil mix I prepare myself, according to Steve Solomon’s recommendations. I mix 1 1/4 gallons of regular garden soil with 3/4 gallon of compost and 1/2 cup of all-purpose organic fertilizer. If you don’t have your own compost, buy some. Or, if you can’t find that, use sphagnum moss. The fertilizer is something I mix myself, to save a ton of money. I’ll post the recipe for that soon. But you can also use store-bought organic fertilizer if you need something quick and easy. Fill the cups to within a half inch of the rim. Don’t pack the soil down. (If you have leftover mix, save it for later seed starting. Cover it so it doesn’t dry out.)
  • I put three or four seeds per cup. If you’ve bought good seed, almost all of them will sprout, and then over time you’ll thin them down to the healthiest of the bunch. I plant them by poking three or four tiny holes with a pencil, dropping a seed in each, and flicking a tiny bit of dirt over top.
  • If your soil came directly from the garden, it should still be moist enough to germinate seeds. No need to water! Just stick your filled cups in plastic bags to hold in the moisture that’s already present. After a couple of days, start checking them regularly for sprouts. Once they’ve sprouted, get those babies to a window! They’re gonna grow! (And of course then you’ll have to start watering.)

Here are the varieties I planted yesterday, all available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange:

  • Broccoli: De Cicco
  • Cauliflower: Early Snowball
  • Green Cabbage: Early Flat Dutch
  • Red Cabbage: Red Acre

Have fun!

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