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Cole crops

By Matthew R. March, MNRD
Polk County Extension Agent

Cole crops are the king of fall and winter gardens in our region. Cole crops are a term for a broad group of vegetables from collard greens, cauliflower, cabbage, mustard greens, broccoli and bok choy to name a few. Cole crops all belong to the mustard family (Brassicaceae). The mustard family is sometimes called the crucifer family and many people use the term cole crops and crucifer crops interchangeably. Other than being in the same family, all cole crops are varieties developed from the wild mustard plant (Brassica oleracea). Over centuries, if not thousands of years, farmers have selected certain traits of the wild mustard plant to develop different varieties.

So why are cole crops the king of fall and winter gardens? Cole crops are adapted to cooler temperatures and most varieties can survive light freezes with some varieties able to survive temperatures of 20 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. More importantly, temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit cause disease issues, decreased yields and decreased palatability. This rules out growing cole crops between May and September. Cole crops should be planted in fall gardens in September and October. Cole crops with short maturity times can be planted in spring gardens but transplants should be planted in February so the plant matures before warm late spring temperatures.

The list of common cole crops planted in Polk County includes: cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, arugula, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, radishes, turnips and watercress.

Many cole crops have a very short harvest window to ensure a quality product. Cauliflower should be harvested when the center of the head is tight before stalks start to separate. Cauliflower can also become yellow due to sun exposure. To prevent this, tie leaves around the developing head to block the sun. Broccoli should be harvested when the very first flowers show the slightest yellow color. Leave side sprouts for later harvest. Cabbage should be harvested when the head becomes firm. Cabbage can be allowed to mature to a larger head but it may lead to a tougher head.

Due to cooler weather cole crops generally have less disease and pest issues compared to warm weather crops. Aphids and cabbage worms are two common pest that can cause serious damage in the matter of days. Scouting can help to discover infestations before widespread damage occurs. Black rot is a soil-born bacterium disease that enters through spores in the leaves. Lesions then occur on the leaf margin and spread to the entire leaf and can eventually kill the plant. Control of black rot includes buying black rot free seedlings, sanitizing equipment and a 4-year crop rotation between cole crops.

Cole crops are the king of Polk County fall and winter gardens due to frost hardiness and preference for colder weather. And even though cole crops may look widely different, they all originated from the wild mustard plant.

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