Brassica Basics

"Brassica?" you say. Well, that's just the Latin name for the broccoli family of vegetables, such as cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and, Brussels sprouts. These cool-loving vegetables are enjoying a revival due to the increased attention given their health benefits. Broccoli, in particular, has been found to contain essential antioxidants that may help prevent cancer. But you don't have to be health conscious to love eating these brassicas. They're easy to grow, and they taste great in a variety of dishes. Here's how to grow some in your garden.

Seed Starting

Select a few different varieties with various maturity times. That way all your cabbage or broccoli won't mature at once. You can start seeds directly in the garden, or better yet, start them indoors 4 to 6 weeks before you're ready to transplant outdoors. In flats filled with moistened potting soil, sprinkle 2 to 3 seeds in each cell and cover with 1/4 inch of soil. Keep moist and within 5 to 7 days the seeds should be sprouted. Place the flats under grow lights turned on 14 hours a day and suspended a few inches above the seedlings. Keep the seedlings moist and fed with a weak solution of fertilizer. Once the true leaves form, pinch out the weakest seedlings in each cell, leaving the strongest one to grow.

Planting Outdoors

Three to four weeks before the last expected frost, harden off plants by gradually placing them outdoors for longer periods of time each day. After a week of adjusting to the weather, it's time to plant!

Create a raised bed in an area that hasn't had broccoli-family crops growing this past year. Build the bed 8 to 10 inches high, 3 feet wide, and as long as you desire. Plant your brassicas in the bed spaced 1 foot apart. Wrap a 2-inch-wide strip of newspaper around each brassica stem, and plant the seedling so the paper is 1 inch below the soil surface. The newspaper is a good cutworm deterrent.

If the weather is still cold, cover the seedlings with a floating row cover. This cheesecloth-like material lets in air, water, and sunlight, but it can help keep the tender transplants warm during chilly nights.

For crops directly sown in the garden, thin seedlings to 12 inches apart, wrap cutworm collars around their stems, and grow them as you would transplants.

Ongoing Care

Keep the transplants well watered and apply a high nitrogen/high phosphorus fertilizer every 3 weeks. The main pests for this family are the cabbage worm and cabbage looper. These green caterpillars go unnoticed until the leaves are chewed to shreds. As soon as you notice the white butterflies flitting around the plants and see signs of chewing damage, spray with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a bacterial control that specifically kills this family of insects. One application may be enough to protect the crop until harvest.

For cauliflower, grow self-blanching varieties that naturally cover the developing head, keeping it white, or tie the leaves over the head as it forms. If exposed to direct sunlight, the heads will turn yellow and taste bitter. For more on growing Brassicas, check out the Virtual Vegetable Guide (


Harvest broccoli when the flower buds are still green and tight. Harvest cabbage when the heads are firm to the touch. Harvest cauliflower when the heads are white, and leaves of kale can be harvested as needed. You won't believe the freshness and flavor of your homegrown veggies. Enjoy your veggies raw with dips, sautéed, or in your favorite casserole.

Question of the Week

Q. Every time I try to start broccoli seeds indoors, they sprout and grow tall and skinny, sometimes even falling over. What am I doing wrong?

A. Broccoli seedlings do tend to look a bit leggy, but in your case the weak growth is likely due to insufficient light, too much heat, or both.

Healthy seedlings require intense light as soon as they germinate. Your best bet is to place seedlings under fluorescent lights as soon as you see the sprouts. Keep the lights just a few inches from the top of the plants. Although broccoli-family seeds require warm temperatures (80° to 85° F) for optimum germination, as soon as the seeds sprout, place seedlings in a cool room (65° F) to promote slow, strong growth.

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