The Brassicas are a plant genus that includes crops such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, brussell sprouts, turnips, mustard greens, cauliflower, pak choi, rutabagas, etc. The Brassicas always comprise much of your first spring plant delivery, as they do much of the fall plant delivery, and they are tasty and good for you, so here are some tips for how to maximize your harvest!
We plant Brassicas in the fall and the early spring b/c they thrive in cooler temps and can withstand very cold temperatures, which actually make them sweeter! Most brassicas will tend to bolt (go to flower then seed) in warmer temps, or if they are stressed because of not enough water, or being held too long in little pots (rootbound).
One of the things that new gardeners seem the most insecure about is when to harvest their veggies. Over the years of making rounds, something I see again and again is beautiful produce that has gone past its prime because folks don’t know when to pick it. One general tip that I like to give people is to wait until it looks like something you would buy at the grocery store. This tip can also be misleading, since grocery store produce has been primped and cleaned up to look a certain way, but it is still a good rule of thumb. With many crops there is a fine line between harvesting too early and harvesting too late.
Some crops, like lettuce (which is not a Brassica) can be allowed to grow all the way to head or they can be harvest small as a cut and come again crop, or leaf by leaf. This all depends upon your eating habits. Sometimes you will plant a dozen baby lettuces that all mature at the same time….which is a lot of lettuce, and you might not be able to consume that much. In that case, I would choose some plants to allow to go completely to head, and others to cut as baby lettuce.
Bolted lettuce becomes very bitter and unpalatable. Here is an image of lettuce that has bolted:
Leafy greens like Kale, Collards and Chard get harvested leaf by leaf on an ongoing basis. These plants last through the seasons, often becoming woody and tall. They do not form heads…you just keep harvesting the outer leaves as you go. Just remember to always leave the innermost leaves so the plant can continue to photosynthesize and grow.
Other crops, like cabbage and broccoli have a specific harvest time, and generally you only get one harvest. Many varieties of broccoli will produce side shoots after the main head has been cut, so if they are healthy and you have the space it is worth keeping those plants in the ground to see what happens. One of the things I see far too often are brassicas that have bolted…left too long so that they have begun to produce a flower stalk. This is too late. At this point those plants should just be pulled, or left for the pollinators.
Look at the photo below of broccoli from my garden that I took yesterday: This broccoli head is tight and perfect, and it is calling out to be cut:
This next photo shows a broccoli plant after the main head has been cut, and if you look closely you can see some small side shoots starting to develop. These won’t get very big, but they are tender and yummy and I intend to take full advantage of them!
Next is a photo of broccoli starting to bolt (thanks to the interwebs for these images). If your broccoli has reached this stage, it has gone a little too far. In my recent travels I have seen lots of missed opportunities when it comes to harvesting your broccoli!
Remember, learning to grow food is an ongoing process. You live and you learn, and the more you engage with your garden the more you will get out of it. I will try to continue with timely harvest tips as the season goes on, so stay tuned!