July planting for broccoli? It's possible, if

We were motoring through the green and beautiful hills of Vermont one day last July when we got to talking about the merits of broccoli (a regular on the dinner plate in our home). That's when my wife asked what I had done to ensure a good suply of this prince among vegetables for fall freezing and winter eating.

I had to admit that the late-June sowing date had come and gone unnoticed. It was too late now to sow seed that would produce mature heads of broccoli before the night freezes of late fall set in.

What to do?

Nurseries that produce vegetable seedlings for spring planting seldom bother with the midseason sowings. There isn't the demand, they tell you. But it was worth a try, anyway, so we began pulling in at every roadside nursery we came across.

On the fourth or fifth stop we found a flat of broccoli seedlings. Indeed, they were a sad-looking bunch.

Normally, I wouldn't have paid even the 35 cents I was asked. But, as it turned out, that late-season broccoli proved to be one of the best buys in the garden last year, producing large heads that met our needs clear through March this year.

Now, as conventional garden advice has it, you should plant broccoli and related family members at the same depth they were in the seed tray, or perhaps half an inch deeper if the stems have grown straggly. In this case, the stems that had draped down over the side of the tray had curved down even lower than the roots. As a result, i was obliged to have several inches of this twisted stem buried on the soil. No matter, it didn't seem to bother the plants at all.

No longer confined, the broccoli raced to maturity and, when they were finally pulled up late in the fall, those still-twisted but now very-fat stems had sent out roots wherever they were covered with soil, much as does the buried stem of a tomato plant.

Any number of lessons can be drawn from this experience, but a principle one is this: It is never too late to apply tender care to all seedlings -- even those in as poor shape as that broccoli last July.

Back in the early 1960s I began gardening in somewhat poor soil that had never been previously prepared in any way. I dug postholes every 18 inches in the rather stony soil in readiness for the cabbage, cauliflower, and other brassicas which we hoped to eat. The holes were filled with kitchen waste and topped with a little soil and some compost. The results ranged from satisfying to very satisfying.

Here in my present garden, where the soil has been improved over the years, I have modified the posthole approach when it comes to planting broccoli and other similar heavy-feeding relatives. First, I dig a hole two trowelfuls deep and fill the bottom half of the hole with rabbit or chicken manure. Then into the top half goes a mixture of soil and finished compost. Finally, the seedlings are planted, making sure that at least an inch or so of soil is between the roots and the manure.

By the time the roots get down to the manure, it has been thoroughly processed by earthworms and microorganisms into acceptable food for the plant.

In my experience, this food source has been enough to carry the plants through to maturity. Top dressings of compost, fertilizer, or perhaps periodic applications of manure or compost "tea" (compost or manure which has been thoroughly stirred into water until the liquid attains a tealike color) can always be added later, if required.

Mulch heavily once the hot weather arrives and feed regularly with side dressings or manure tea. Continued cutting of the side heads causes the plant to bush out until it becomes a confused mass of stalks.

Pruning it back, much as you would a fruit tree, hel ps to improve the size of later heads.

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