Twenty years of growing vegetables have convinced me that gardening, like comedy, is all in the timing.
Other than being planted in sun and good soil, what vegetables mainly want is to be timed correctly.
And this is something that can only be learned through trial and error. Books and the back of seed packages can give you the roughest idea of whether a crop likes it cool or likes it hot. But any "expert" who names a crop and a planting date for a general audience is by definition a fraud. The moment to plant depends entirely on your zip code, whether you've sited your garden on a high and dry spot or a low wet one, and the weather in any given year.
I'm constantly fiddling with the timing of different things and probably will be until I'm dead. I've been frustrated in recent years with my crucifers: broccoli and cabbages mainly, with a certain degree of grumpiness about my kale, too–oh, and also the sort-season members of the family, turnips and broccoli raab.
Now, these all are relatively foolproof crops, so what am I complaining about? Give them enough room and rich soil, many of them turn into huge, handsome plants. And they like cool weather, which is important when you garden in Zone 4, as I do.
The problem with the more fast-maturing brassicas like turnips and broccoli raab is their sensitivity to day length. Planted before the summer solstice in my part of the world, these tend to get woody and go to seed rather than forming something nice for dinner. The answer here is plant them as fall crops.
The problem with the long-maturing brassicas, broccoli and cabbages, is that they often mature just when they shouldn't–right smack in the heat of summer, right when the cabbage worms are most active. Then they get eaten and covered with the caterpillars' green feces. Not pretty. The broccoli goes from floret to flower instantly in hot weather, and what looks gorgeous on Tuesday is borderline inedible on Thursday. The cabbages reach the right size when my basement is still too warm for sauerkraut-making, and they soon lose their compact shape, get nibbled by rabbits, and develop that stench of death that is unique to rotting crucifer.
Sometimes even the Brussels sprouts, which need a long season, come in too early and the little sprouts start opening and getting sloppy.
If you can just carry the big crucifers over the heat of the summer, they are wonderful in that they will stand at attention for a long, long time in the garden in fall, and let you harvest them slowly. I've chopped down Brussels sprouts with a pick on a Christmas day.
But for years, I never considered altering the timing of the big brassicas, because I never felt variety was particularly important with them, and I just would buy whatever seedlings my local nursery had and stick them in the ground on Memorial Day.
Then I had a chat with CR Lawn, the founder of Fedco seeds, about my broccoli-timing problem, who told me he doesn't have that problem because he direct-seeds his broccoli. And as he thins the plants, he slows some of them down and staggers the harvest by transplanting them elsewhere.
Direct seeding! A smack-the-forehead kind of revelation. Incredibly enough, it had never occurred to me before that these huge plants would mature in my short season from seeds. All I can say in my own defense, is that I don't love broccoli on my plate and mainly plant it for other members of the household who do.
So I tried direct seeding this year. I bought a package of broccoli mix from Fedco cleverly designed to mature at different moments and seeded it all June 1. Worked like a charm. And I've had broccoli appearing steadily for the last month, rather than a truckload appearing all at once when I'm too busy to deal with it all, as usually happens.
I also direct-seeded cabbages–red cabbages and a really attractive pink-tinged green Italian variety. They're big enough now to make sauerkraut and cole slaw, but not as big as they should be, given that the light is now waning and fall is barreling down upon us. Next year, I'll seed them two weeks earlier–May 15.
This year, after having for years treated kale as a fall crop, but never satisfied with its size on harvest, I also seeded it June 1. The plants are twice as big as they usually are, and lasting perfectly well in the garden, patiently waiting for me to make caldo gallego–my favorite cold-weather soup of chicken stock, beans, potatoes, kale, and ham–without getting yellow, eaten, or rotten in the least. A triumph.
Next year, a vow: all crucifers, even the slow-developing Brussels sprouts, go in as seeds.