Each spring, I find that there is some confusion in the difference between a cold crop and a cole crop. Although the words sound alike, and sometimes people use them interchangeably, they are not the same.
I know it can be a bit confusing, so let’s talk about what each one really is and a little bit about the difference between them.
Cold crops are plants that you can plant and they will thrive in cool or cold weather. They can be planted before the threat of frost has passed in spring, and many of them can be planted in fall and survive our first frosts for a late season harvest. Vegetables like lettuce, spinach, kale, peas and radishes are good examples of cold crops. Annuals like pansies and violas also fall into this category.
Plant your cold crops early in the season. Leafy greens like mustard, lettuce, Swiss chard and spinach can all be started long before your last frost date. Root crops like radishes, carrots, kohlrabi and turnips also will thrive when planted early in the season. These plants love cooler temperatures, although you may need to keep a frost cover handy for a cold night or snow event. Most cold plant can be started sometime in April in our area, depending on your specific location.
Cole crops are something else. Although they also are cold crops in the sense that they prefer cooler growing conditions, the word “cole” comes from a root word in Latin – caulis – that means cabbage. These plants are all descendants of wild cabbage, and many are cruciferous, meaning that if you cut their stems in half horizontally, you will find a cross pattern. They also are members of the Brassica, or mustard family.
Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and collard greens are all examples of cole crops.
Cole crops grow best when daytime temperatures are below 80 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures are below 60 degrees. Many cole crops, such as cabbage, can tolerate nighttime temperatures that are as low as 10-15 degrees and survive some frost. As a matter of fact, there’s a process called “cold sweetening,” that happens with these plants as they approach harvest. A light frost converts the starches in the plant into sugars, providing a much sweeter taste. So, having a light frost before cutting them to eat is quite desirable.
Plant cold and cole crops in a well-drained, sunny location. Working compost into your soil before planting will serve the dual purpose of loosening the soil after winter so it drains well, and adding nutrients which these heavy feeders will need for growth.
Fertilize them well throughout the growing season. Be watchful for bugs, which prize those first leafy green vegetables. Row cover, diatomaceous earth, other organic controls and or handpicking larger pests like caterpillars off will ensure a healthy crop.
Since cole crops also are cold crops, it sometimes gets confusing. Both are generally easy to grow and wonderfully healthy additions to any home garden. I’d encourage you to try some of them this spring. Carrots, turnips and other root crops can easily be started in pots then moved in and out if the thought of gardening in the ground outside while it’s still chilly isn’t for you. I promise you: There’s nothing quite as sweet as the first picking of spring lettuce or spinach, or pulling that first radish or snow pea, and eating it straight from the garden!
Gail Vanik can be reached at 970-565-8274 or by email at [email protected].