The amazing benefits of using row covers to grow brassicas like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower include bug protection and weather protection for stronger, more productive plants.
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One of the things I've learned by trial and error in my gardening journey is that the early spring, cool season vegetables like broccoli, cabbages, and cauliflower (known as group as 'cole' crops or 'brassicas') LOVE growing under a lightweight cover.
The very first year I grew broccoli I had to throw away every single head and side shoot the plants produce because of an aphid infestation. Believe me, I tried everything to get those things off - vinegar, warm water, hot water, boiling water - but they were so thick there was no way to get them out of all the crevices in the heads.
The next year I grew them under a light, floating row cover (sometimes called Remay, garden fabric, or frost blanket) to try and keep the bugs out so we could at least harvest some of the heads. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it worked wonderfully, keeping out the aphids and the cabbage loopers (well, most of them, since I didn't keep the edges completely sealed) and allowing us to discover the amazing taste and tenderness of home-grown broccoli (the stems are not tough at all!).
Since then I've always grown broccoli under a row cover. I've also always grown broccoli in the same bed with cabbage and cauliflower (because they're all from the same family, brassicas), so everything got covered because I didn't want to share any of our food with bugs.
What I discovered through this is that the plants grown under the cover are healthier, grow faster, and produce sooner than any that I plant without a cover!
Illustrated Benefits of Using Row Covers
How to Use Row Covers
Pictured above is a 4'x12' raised bed in mid-May planted with three sections of broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. When the seedlings were planted out in April, short portable metal hoops were inserted in the soil to support the floating row cover which was secured with clothespins on the hoops and rocks in the corners and edges (or you can also use Earth Staples to secure it).
Technically, you don't need to use the hoops, since the fabric is light enough to rest on the plants, but my home-started seedlings are usually pretty fragile and we get a lot of hard rain in the spring, so I've found the hoops just give an extra advantage.
You can see in the photo above that the plants are outgrowing the cover, so right after this picture was taken I loosened the clips (and rocks in the corners) to allow for the taller growth.
Why to Use Row Covers
- The cover allows growth of these cole crops with fewer aphid and cabbage looper damage.
- Even though they are considered "cool weather crops," they respond well to the the slightly warmer and protected environment under the cover. This is illustrated below:
When the cover is pulled back, you can see that the cabbages (front) and cauliflower (back) have responded to the 5-10 warmth increase under the cover with lots of healthy, green growth.
They have also been protected them from wind and excessive rain and hail we often have in the spring (and if you're wondering, the ferny plants in between are self-seeded dill - oh, and a weed).
On the flip side, these three little cabbages were planted at the same time as the others in the first photo in a bed about 3 feet away. They were extras seedlings that didn't fit in the main bed so I just found a place they could live out of the way and fend for themselves.
Isn't the difference amazing? Even though it doesn't look like it, these little guys have grown a bit, and they do look healthy, but their brothers are about three to four times bigger!
The broccoli grows more rapidly, too - these are about two feet tall and some even have little green heads starting to bud. They are healthier, with leaves free of damage from flea beetles as well as the aphids and cabbage loopers and will produce sooner than plants grown without a cover. You can tell they look pretty happy, right?
So, what are the benefits of using row covers again?
So, to recap, I think you'll love growing broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower under row covers because they:
- remain relatively bug-free
- mature faster
- grow healthier
- produce sooner
I know I don't even bother trying to grow these crops without a cover anymore - what about you - do you use row covers?
Note: This article has been updated - it was originally published in 2010.
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