Putting my ear to the crucifers’ clock


Kale and collards looking extremely glamorous

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.


  1. Well said! I’ve been driving myself nuts trying to time when I should plant different vegetables. I even made up a chart and asked some local farmers to help me with it. But wouldn’t you know it… the weather keeps shifting around and nothing is ever the same. I thought I had found the perfect resource in the intrernet but most of the information here is from gardeners living in temperate climates and I’m as tropical as they come. (Which is why I have to plant cabbages and cauliflowers in winter when the temperatures dip below 20*C for a change)

  2. I gave up on the crucifers because of the cabbage worm ickiness on the plants left over after the grasshoppers thinning. Next year I vow to get floating row covers and try again. Now let’s see, which of the crucifers will the chef actually be willing to prepare? Another major roadblock for me.

  3. Thank you , thank you, thank you. I’ll try it your way next spring here in zome 5/6. Not to be picky but you say “summer equinox”. Do you mean spring equinox or summer solstice?

  4. This is the best thing I’ve read in months!
    Thank you thank you thank you!!!!!!
    I’m rather new to gardening, and couldn’t figure out why last year we had the most amazing broccoli I’ve ever tasted, while this year it tastes horrid (along with the cauliflower and such).
    I’ll stagger my seeds next year and see if that helps!

  5. Christopher C, I don’t love broccoli, but I love Marcella Hazan’s potato and broccoli soup with basil. She carmelizes lots of onions in olive oil first and then cooks the potatoes and broccoli in chicken stock. Add tons of chopped basil. Serve with parmesan–very good!

    And kale is a super soup vegetable because it retains its frilly texture even when cooked.

    As for cabbages, cole slaw made with a sweet homemade mayonnaise–don’t forget the cilantro–is very fine! Also, a quasi-Asian slaw made with fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, and loads of cilantro is nice.

    And homemade sauerkraut is incredibly easy and tastes fantastic all winter.

  6. But every once in a while Mother Nature throws a wicked curve ball you had no way of anticipating. I planted my tomatoes in March (pretty typical here). The Winter & early Spring had been average, so it seemed like a good idea at the time. Between the on-purpose plants & volunteers I had 23 plants at one point in my tiny plot. I dreamt of oceans of marinara, salsas, & juice canned in my pantry.

    Now in mid-September, how many ripe tomatoes do you think I’ve harvested ? Fewer than two dozen. That’s right – even counting the normally over-abundant yellow pears, I’ve not harvested fruit from every plant.

    Part of the problem was a raccoon who developed a penchant for nearly-ripe Purple Cherokees. Odd, that he – like me – decided early on that the Mortgage Lifters were not so tasty & not worth the garden space.

    The chief problem was something no Have-a-heart trap could fix. It was the weather. Unusually cool, rain-in-July, jackets-in-August weather. We usually hit 100 sometime in May & visit it frequently all the way into October. The only thing that makes this remotely tolerable to me is a sandwich with a thick slice of juicy homegrown tomato for breakfast, lunch & dinner. No heat, however, means no tomatoes.

    So the point I’m trying to make in this roundabout, periphrastic way is that you can get your timing down to a “T”, but if Ma Nature doesn’t cooperate, it can all still be for naught.

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