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 the spring and many of them can also be planted again in the 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 will also thrive when planted early in the season. These plants love cooler temperatures although you may need to keep a frost cover handy in case of a particularly cold night or snow event. Most of these can be started sometime in April in our area, depending on your specific location.
Cole crops are something completely different although they also are cold crops meaning they prefer cooler weather growing conditions to do their best. 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 are also all 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 the daytime temperatures are below 80 degrees F and night time temperatures are below 60 degrees F. Many cole crops can tolerate nighttime temperatures that are quite cold, as low as 10-15 degrees F for cabbage for instance, and can even 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 actually quite desirable.
Plant both cold crops and cole crops in a well drained, sunny location. Working compost into your soil before planting will serve the dual purpose of loosening up the soil after the winter so it drains well, and adding nutrients which these heavy feeders will need in order to grow well. Fertilize them well throughout the growing season. Be watchful for bugs because just like you prize those first leafy green vegetables to feast on, so do they. Row cover, diatomaceous earth, other organic controls, or handpicking larger pests like caterpillars off will ensure a healthy, harvestable crop.
Since cole crops are also cold crops I know that it sometimes gets confusing. Both are generally easy to grow, wonderfully healthy additions to any home garden, and 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 though, 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!