Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Broccoli - Seed to Transplant

I was realizing that my Sunday postal history posts tend to be upbeat and push the idea of learning new things.  While there is something to be said for the difference between a hobby and a profession, I want to make it clear that I did not get into farming because I absolutely HAD to.  There was/is much that I enjoy.  So, I thought I would share some things on Tuesdays about green and growing things for those who might have interest!

Let's give it a try - I hope you all enjoy this.

Protected from the Start

The first time we tried to grow broccoli in our gardens, we bought plant starts from a local nursery, planted them, surrounded them with marigold starts (from the same nursery) and then came out the next day to see that the rabbits had snipped all of the marigolds and a number of the broccoli plants.  As some point fairly early in our farm endeavors, we tried direct seeding broccoli and had very poor success due to predation and weed pressure.

It really didn't take much to conclude that the early stages of the broccoli plant are typically those most fraught with danger for the plant.  Even in recent years, we have lost HUNDREDS of broccoli starts when a woodchuck got into the area where our trays of young plants were waiting for their moment to go into the field. 

In any event, we like to start our broccoli plants two to four times a year in 72 cell trays and put them on heat mats with overhead lights until the seedlings "pop."  If the weather is warm enough, we prefer getting them out of the artificial light setting as soon as we are able, putting them in a cold frame, a high tunnel or some other protected environment.  Over a period of four to six weeks, we gradually harden them off to full outdoor conditions.  

Ideally, we might like to 'top-dress' the plants two to four times depending on how soon we can put them into the ground successfully.  For those who do not know what that means - you can essentially top dress your plants by adding some of your starting soil to the top of the tray where your plants reside.  This adds some nutrients to the soil that is rapidly depleted by frequent watering and growing plants.

Getting to Transplant Day

Ideally, we like to put the plants in the ground when they are between four and five weeks old, but we rarely get what we want for a whole host of reasons.  But, if plants get much more than six weeks old, it is probably better to move on to a new planting.  This is not to say that older plants won't work - they can.   It is just more likely there will be other issues later on.

We have found (in years where the ground just won't dry out) that we can opt to spend the time and transplant trays into larger pots - like we do for the tomatoes we sold in years past.  But - you do the math - what costs us more in supplies and labor hours?   Start a few new trays three weeks after the first batch in case the first batch can't go in when planned OR use the time, space, soil and pots to pot all of those little plants up?

Below is a batch of tomatoes and eggplant that have been potted up.  You need to remember that plants take up more space when they are in individual pots!

Remember - we typically have planted hundreds of these at one time. The great news is that either option could be made to work.  The trick is to keep the plants growing.  Every time their growth stalls is a negative for possible future production by the plant.  But, before you look at your plants in dismay, you need to remember that they are often tougher than you think.  If what you have is all you've got, give them a try anyway and see if you can't coax them to produce.

Or, if you farm like we do, you decide if they are worth the gamble or not.  Heck.  You're not a real farmer unless you have ten or more crop failures a year - give them a try.

Transplant Day

Over the last several years, we have gone with a single row of broccoli in one bed (the width of our tractor makes a bed) and we have one foot spacing between plants.  This typically gives our plants plenty of room to have some good size and space for excellent root development.

And, since we grow in rows that allow for some mechanical cultivation, we want fairly straight rows.  We often use our drip tape (irrigation) to help us there.  We've found that if you lay the tape out (and anchor it in place to keep it from blowing away) it provides a decent guide for both the straight line and the spacing.  After all, this drip tape has an emitter for water every 6 inches.  Plant one plant every other emitter and you have twelve inch spacing - cool!

One more thing we forgot to tell our workers once (much to our chagrin) - make sure the root ball is covered!  If even a little of it is uncovered, it has a tendency to wick moisture away from the small bit of soil (and their roots), especially on a windy spring day.  If you are not immediately getting some water on them, you can be surprised how quickly the plant will wilt and possibly die on you!  Some farms have transplanting tools that put water directly on the plant as it is put into the ground.  We tended to start the drip tape running once we are about a quarter of the way down the 200 foot row.  

Why wait to start it?  Well, if you have transplanted before, you know what happens as you put plants into wet soil?  Yep, it gets kind of hard to work with that much much on your fingers!

Beautiful Broccoli

I realize that most people who read this blog will, at most, plant a few broccoli in their own garden.  I think I included enough to inform some people who are in that position.  For those who plant at our scale (or larger), you are either concerned that I have not given enough detail or you recognize that I wasn't trying to spend time on a step by minute step process that will lead any grower to have successful and profitable broccoli crops every season.

Like the postal history posts, there is usually so much more detail and information that could be put out there.  But, that's not the point.  The point is to learn a bit about something new... or learn something new about something you already know about.

I hope you did and I hope you have a good day!

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