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California Coles Welcome the Cool Weather

October 18, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

Over a morning cup of coffee and a sweetroll, on a day that promises to be warm and sunny, broccoli and cauliflower and the other cole crops may seem an unlikely subject. But think ahead. The cole crops are cool weather crops. Though they are planted in the lingering warmth of fall--for a quick start--they must mature when the weather is cool and wintery. You may plant them in a T-shirt, but you'll harvest them in a sweater.

In their wild form, the cole crops were Mediterranean weeds that sprouted with the first winter rain; in their cultivated forms they spread to Asia and to northern Europe to become broccoli, cabbages of all sorts, and cauliflower (as well as collards, kale and kohlrabi). In California, they found a home in our winter gardens where they got the cool growing weather they wanted and quickly became a major commercial success.

What all the cole crops have in common is the botanic name of Brassica. They are all members of the mustard family, the same mustards that cover our hills with yellow in early spring (despite their ubiquitousness they are not wildflowers, but weeds).

Unlike most vegetables, they should be set out in the garden as young plants, and can not be planted from seed sown directly in the ground.

The little plants now at nurseries are perfect. These seedlings, with their crooked necks and top-heavy habit of growth, may not appear to be perfect, but that's how the cole crops grow and the reason they should be put in as small plants.

The trick is to be sure and bury that crooked little neck. For most plants this would be fatal, but not for the cole crops. Plant them so all of the stem below the first set of leaves is buried. If you don't, the plants will not grow upright but will lay on their sides like lazy cats in the sun.

Despite their small beginnings, these plants are large and need quite a bit of space. Cabbages, cauliflower and broccoli need about 2 feet between them, though you can probably pack them as tightly as 18 inches apart. Commercial growers give them as much as three feet, but they have a little more land at their disposal.

Eating Unopened Flower Buds

If you want to grow a serious crop of cauliflower or broccoli, you will need to devote a good deal of space, but don't plant all at once or you'll be inundated when they ripen: You can't put off picking either of these vegetables once they're ready because what you are eating are unopened flower buds. If you wait, they open and that's that. This is another reason why they need cool weather--to retard the opening of the flowers as much as possible.

So a logical strategy is to plant a pack of six from a nursery this weekend, then wait a few weeks and plant another, and so on into early spring. The plants will be available at nurseries for at least that long and this strategy spreads out the harvest.

A six-pack of cabbage plants is a serious crop all by itself for all but the most devote kraut- lovers, but if you haven't ever grown a big tight ball of a cabbage, be sure to try it at least once, so you can make your own cole slaw or cabbage rolls.

A less serious planting of broccoli and cauliflower might find a few planted right in with the flowers just for the fun of it because these are pretty plants. You may notice that there are strictly ornamental varieties of cabbage and kale sold at nurseries that are grown for their pretty purple and white foliage.

All of the cole crops need a rich, fertile soil, so add organic amendments such as Gromulch or Topper (on sale this week at one chain of building supply stores) before planting, and fertilize at least once during the growing season.

Excluding Light

To a cook, blanch means to scald or parboil in water, but to a gardener, blanch means to bleach by excluding light. This is how one used to get snow white cauliflower heads.

Today's varieties will be white even if you don't blanch, but they'll be prettier and tastier if you do. And why miss out on one of the fine old traditions of vegetable growing? Here's what you do: When the heads are large but still green, tie the leaves over the heads with a little twine or the more practical plastic garden tape--if you care nothing about tradition. Untie a head now and again to see if they're ready to pick.

Heads of cauliflower and broccoli should be cut off the stem when ready--and side shoots with smaller heads may develop later--but most gardeners pull out the plants at this time and put in another planting that probably will ripen before hot weather returns.

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