With the threat of a hard freeze now comfortably behind us, gardeners who want to plant early vegetables can begin setting out transplants for cole crops.
Many area greenhouses stock ample varieties of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts to save us the hassle of having to start seedlings indoors.
Cole crops need to be planted this month in order to do most of their growing before hot weather arrives. Once daytime temperatures settle in above 80 degrees, growth on these plants will slow. Too much hot weather also will affect the flavor and texture of these vegetables, leaving them flat-tasting and even a bit rubbery.
Most varieties of broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower will be ready for harvest in 65 days or less, which means that they can be picked in early June. Brussels sprouts generally need about three months of growing time. For that reason they are best planted in a garden spot that will receive dappled shade when the trees fill out.
The heat sensitivity of cole crops has a flip side, however. Frost and even a light freeze will not harm them, making them one of the few vegetables that will thrive above ground in April, when overnight lows are still too chilly for other produce. In fact, the cooler the spring, the better your harvest.
Because cole crops do most of their growing before bugs descend on the garden, pests are not much of a problem. Cutworms are frequently cited in gardening manuals as a problem for young plants, but I have never had cutworm damage in my garden. The greatest hindrances to getting a good harvest, besides hot weather in May, are wind and underwatering. The two are often related.
Spring in Kansas is notoriously windy, and young, unprotected transplants can be battered beyond salvage in just a few hours. This is a problem particularly during the first two or three weeks that the transplants are in the ground. Gardeners who can provide some kind of windbreak in the early spring will have the best harvests of cole crops. If you do not have a hedge or other natural buffer nearby, you just about have to provide some protection.
The most effective and, unfortunately, the most expensive strategy is to use a floating row cover over hoops, making sure to secure the fabric to prevent it from blowing away. I had a row cover end up in the top of a locust tree a few years ago. Needless to say, it never came back down. Most garden supply stores and catalogs that sell row covers also sell the large staples to fasten the edges to the ground.
The benefit of row cover is that the white fabric is porous to sunlight; its downside is that it isn't terribly sturdy. You can use it maybe two seasons. For example, the row cover that blew into the tree was in its second year and had become fragile enough that the wind tore it off of its staples.
Row cover generally comes in a 5-foot width. One garden supply catalog, Gardens Alive (www.GardensAlive.com), sells a 25-foot piece for $7.95. A package of 25 U-shaped pins costs $4.45.
You can use stakes to prop up the row cover to keep it from rubbing against the plants, but in my experience, the stakes eventually tear the row cover. The better alternative is to make hoops out of 5-foot-long pieces of 1/2-inch pliable plastic pipe, burying each end of the pipe about 6 inches into the ground on either side of the row. The row cover can then be stretched over the hoops and fastened to the ground with the big staples.
The row cover should be removed for good around the second week of May, when the weather is consistently warmer.
Other makeshift wind barriers, such as hay bales and 3-pound coffee cans with the ends removed, also block sunlight and the plants become leggy. Plastic milk cartons blow away. Glass cloches are outrageously expensive and trap too much heat.
During the early spring it's important to water cole crops, as the wind quickly dries the soil and underwatered plants are less able to withstand the stress caused by the unrelenting wind.
The soil will dry more slowly under a row cover, so you can get by with an inch of water a week. Without a row cover, the plants should be watered twice a week.
Watering can be something of a hassle with a row cover in place. The job becomes much easier if you run a soaker hose down the length of the row before you stretch the cover over your hoops.
When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.