The cabbage family has much to offer the spring vegetable garden. Native to Europe's cooler climates, cabbage members tolerate cold weather and even moderate freezing temperatures.
The most recognizable members of the clan are broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale and, of course, cabbage.
Most members of this family are easy to grow and persist through controllable pests while offering unique vegetables to the family diet that are both nutritious and versatile.
Once planted in early spring, most cabbage members are in a race with the weather to attain a good size before warm and long days arrive in late June. When summerlike weather is on the horizon, broccoli and cauliflower end their growth stage and begin to initiate a flower — which is the part we eat.
With a head of cabbage, flowering or "bolting" occurs when the top of the head begins to crack and the flower stalk pushes through.
Collards and kale, with their dark, leafy greens, don't go to seed until their second year, so bolting generally isn't a problem.
The cabbage family's ideal soil includes good drainage, neutral pH and abundant organic matter. The presence of earthworms often is a good indicator of organic matter. Soils that have standing water following a rain or are naturally slow to drain are prime for development of root rot.
There are literally hundreds of varieties of broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Hybrid varieties, which have extra vigor and in some cases disease resistance, most often outperform open-pollinated varieties. Most spring varieties mature 50 to 70 days from transplanting. If planting from seed, add another 20 days.
Brussels sprouts take a long time to grow — up to 120 days — and they often languish during our hot summers, so planting them in late summer for fall or winter harvest is best.
Collards and kale can be planted in spring and fall, and because they're so hardy, if planted in late summer or very early fall, often will grow all winter, especially if covered by a hoop house or other method of protection from hard freezes.
Before planting in the ground, home-grown and nursery-purchased plants should be "hardened off," a process of conditioning a tender seedling into a hardy plant that will be able to tolerate full sun, wind, rain and even occasional frost.
Place young plants outside where they will receive morning sun and afternoon shade. After a couple of days, move them into full sun for a few more days. Then the plants will be ready for planting.
Varieties to consider
Broccoli can be separated into two types: heading and sprouting.
Heading varieties produce one large head followed by a few side shoots.
Sprouting broccoli, which grows taller than heading varieties, produces a center head followed by a continual harvest of small florets. The more you pick sprouting broccoli, the more the plant will produce. The goal is to never let the yellow flowers develop.
Premium Crop is one of the better hybrid heading varieties.
Italian Sprouting is an old-time standard among sprouting types.
Purple broccoli is a novelty item that makes for conversations when used in salads.
Cabbage comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors.
Dynamo, a past All American Selections variety winner, is only half the size of standard varieties, producing perfect, meal-sized cabbage without taking up too much space in raised beds or smaller gardens.
I prefer hybrid varieties that mature quickly. Snow Crown, a 50-day hybrid, is a good performer in most years.
The developing head on cauliflower requires protection from the direct sun to keep it tight and white. Tying outer leaves together over the developing head to exclude sunlight, a process known as "blanching," helps develop larger-sized curds.
Self-blanching varieties are available that naturally grow their leaves over the curd to provide a protective canopy.
The biggest threats to cabbage members are aphids, green cabbage moths, slugs and snails.
Cabbage moths are larvae of the white butterfly often seen landing on the plants, where they lay eggs that hatch into worms that feed on the leaves. DiPel and Thuricide are organic, biological insecticides that work safely and well as a foliar spray. Slugs and snails can be controlled through baiting.