Alas, poor brassicas

This is a sad story. And like most tales of woe, it came about through a combination of bad luck and fatal error.

April 28, 2021: aftermath of a tragedy

I grew some lovely spring greens this year: kale, Chinese cabbage, quick-growing loose-head cauliflower and broccoli. The seedlings were perfect; I hardened them off outdoors and then planted them in my community garden plot, covering them with medium-weight row cover over hoops partly to keep them warm against colder nights and partly to keep off insect pests, since I’d already seen cabbage white butterflies flying around. The row cover was held down to the ground with bricks and stones – I thought securely.

Then, about two weeks ago, we had a dual weather event: first, very high winds; then a cold snap, where the temperatures dropped below freezing. I didn’t manage to get to my plot until after all that was over, and I found… disaster. The row cover had blown off, and the plants were brown, with frozen, translucent leaves, nearly dead. Some of them were still green in the middle, but they’d all been hit hard.

Let’s skip to my final decision, taken the morning of May 5: I pulled them all out and took the hoops and row cover home. (It had blown off again in the latest wind event.) I’d pretty much decided to do that immediately upon seeing the damage, but I figured I had time to decide. Another choice I could have made was to save some of the plants, perhaps transplanting the survivors so they were all together and could be covered as a group. It didn’t seem worth it, especially for the broccoli and cauliflower, which are more sensitive to temperature issues and would likely start bolting when, inevitably, the temperatures shoot up in late May or early June. And even the kale probably wouldn’t have given me much before going to flower. If I had a large garden, it might have been reasonable to give the surviving plants a try, but space is at a premium in my 400 square foot plot, so pulling out the brassicas means that I have a chance to grow a summer crop I wouldn’t otherwise have managed. Okra, I’m thinking.

So clearly Master Gardeners have garden mishaps too; I’m not going to pretend otherwise, but I am going to use the experience as an educational tool. What went wrong here? Some elements of the disaster:

  • Plants were not sufficiently hardened off for conditions. Okay, probably true, but that’s spring around here for you. The seedlings were hardened off; they experienced a week of outdoor temperatures and sunshine before being planted in the garden. The problem is that the hardening-off period was warmer than the subsequent weather.
  • Row cover wasn’t adequately secured. Obviously. I do have some clips that hold row cover onto the PVC pipe I use for hoops, and didn’t use them. There were a lot of rocks and bricks! But the wind was really strong, and once it gets underneath it pulls on the row cover like a sail.
  • Shock. This is the real problem: the sudden change in exposure that the plants experienced. Brassica seedlings a few inches tall are more vulnerable to cold temperatures than full-grown plants (that’s why fall-grown greens do fine when there’s a frost), but ironically they might have been fine if they hadn’t been cosy under the row cover and then had it ripped away. It’s the change that hurts. My community garden neighbor had brassica seedlings only a little taller than mine, uncovered, and his survived with only minor leaf damage. Tough love. (He’ll have pests later on, though.)
  • Position in garden. My plot is near the lowest point in our valley-shaped garden, both exposed to drying winds and in a spot where the coldest air settles. I have also lost tomato plants in previous years when those higher up got through a frost.

These are all accidents, unavoidable circumstances, or minor mistakes. Here’s the big error, though, where I neglected to take my own advice. One of the mantras I repeat to gardeners when I give talks is: BE IN YOUR GARDEN. And yes, it’s harder when your garden is a car ride away rather than in your backyard. I still should have been there, checking to make sure the row cover was secure, checking to see if it stayed on, giving my plants some extra water, protecting them. And I wasn’t.

So, lesson learned. Again. I have seeds left over and I’ll try again in the fall. Meanwhile, here’s a memory of these plants in happier times, before they were exposed to the cold hard outdoors:

So pretty! I miss them. But hey: okra.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

4 thoughts on “Alas, poor brassicas

  1. Mariayne Brodnicki May 7, 2021 / 7:46 am

    Thanks so much Erica. Real world trauma and resolution!

  2. sonja May 7, 2021 / 8:16 pm

    so sad, but so true. they were a beautiful bunch. the good thing is, Okra!
    and a different view on how to handle it in the fall……BRAVO

  3. Pat Lynch May 8, 2021 / 10:51 am

    So sorry Erica! Thank you for sharing the garden mishaps! Having made many of my own as a Master Gardener, it’s a big reminder that there is always something to learn in the garden (and lots of other places too)! I find it helps a little to call my garden plots as experimental gardening sites to remind myself that I learn new things all the time and sometimes Mother Nature reminds me of what I already know, but… disaster was planting the cauliflower seedlings too late in the Fall and having them turn into hard little black remains!

  4. Deb May 11, 2021 / 2:16 pm

    What is best vegie to plant , (small plants) in May?

Leave a Reply to Pat LynchCancel reply