July 11, 1997
I want to warn you up front: In this article, I am going to express some strong personal biases. I am not a fan of the nursery seedling trade, at least when it comes to vegetables. Knowing that, please read what I have to say, and why I say it; then make up your own mind.
Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and to some extent cauliflower, really are fairly easy vegetables to grow as long as you understand certain facts about them. With the exception of Brussels sprouts, they require an even, high level of nitrogen to grow well. All do best with regular supplies of water. In addition, they prefer consistent, moderate temperatures. In all things, they prefer consistency; not only in regards to fertilizer, water, and climate, but in most other ways as well.
Cole crops (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, etc.) have a bad habit of reacting to stress by bolting (bolting means making a flower head). Stressors can include: allowing transplants to dry out; letting transplants get root-bound (this is a biggie), large day-to-night temperature swings, and even uneven levels of fertilization.
It is true that you want some of these to flower eventually, since that is the part of the plant that you eat; but you don't want it to happen too early! Many people don't realize that the size of the head you get is proportional to how large the plant is BEFORE it starts to flower. I have seen many broccoli transplants, sitting in 2-inch pots at local nurseries, with small heads on them! People mistakenly think this is a good thing; if the plant has a head on it while it is still small, just think what a harvest they will get when it grows (yes, I've overheard that comment several times)! Unfortunately, that head is on the plant because it was stressed, probably because the original grower tried to get it out of his greenhouse in the shortest amount of time he could; and the plant will not get much bigger, EVER.
You might very well be saying "No, you can't be right. These nurseries would not stay in business long if they weren't selling plants that would grow well.". This would be true, if the average buyer had adequate information; but frankly they don't. My personal belief is that the typical transplant grower only cares about getting his/her product to the store at the lowest possible cost (meaning, among other things, in the shortest possible amount of time), knowing full well that most people will blame themselves when the broccoli or cauliflower fails to produce much. Most people will just convince themselves that these are difficult plants to grow, and they just haven't gotten the hang of it yet!
Of course, the best solution is to grow your own plants from seed (I know some of you saw that coming, especially if you've read anything I've written before). Cole crops are honestly quite easy to start yourself. You'll get more vigorous plants, and be able to grow varieties with superior taste to what you'll find at the garden center. But, barring that, here's what you do. Look for transplants that seem to be "the right size for the pot", and appears healthy. Make sure there is no evidence that a head is forming. Most importantly, when no one is looking, carefully turn the plant over and pop it out of its pot. If it isn't root-bound, go ahead and buy it. If it is, put it back carefully so the less-informed shopper standing behind you can purchase it.
All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated November 18, 2013