Because broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage plants become big once mature, they must be spaced far apart. But why waste the garden ground between them during their young days?
At maturity, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage (BCC) plants can span four feet across. (I just measured one cauliflower plant in my yard at four feet three inches wide.)
But that doesn’t mean they need to be planted that far apart. There’s no harm in spacing them more closely such that their leaves touch those of neighboring plants. In fact, the farthest I’ve ever planted BCC apart is a bit over two feet.
How closely can they be planted? For most varieties, 1.5 feet is as crowded as will still give maximum size heads. I have planted as close as one foot apart (within a row, with more space on the sides), but the plants seemed a bit stunted at that spacing.
So you put these little plants into the ground spaced 1.5 to two feet apart and there’s a lot of sun hitting the dirt in between; in other words, there’s a lot of sun being wasted. That’s not ideal.
Further, if you use sprinkler or drip irrigation, then you’re probably wasting water between the young plants also. For example, I use drip irrigation lines whose emitters are spaced nine inches apart. If I plant my BCC 1.5 feet apart, then there is an emitter between each plant, which is watering dirt that has no roots while the BCC plants are still young.
I can do two things in order to avoid wasting water with this set up. I can handwater until the plants are big enough to access the water applied by the emitters between the plants, or I can plant something in between the BCC plants, next to those intermediate emitters.
Interplanting broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage with lettuce
What to plant between the BCC? Lettuce is an excellent option. It is Farmer Roy’s interplant of choice. Roy’s routine is to plant romaine lettuce between all of his broccoli and cauliflower plants. Both the lettuce and broccoli or cauliflower are planted on the same day.
These two are a perfect pair because they like to grow in the same cool conditions, and the lettuce is ready for harvest long before the broccoli or cauliflower. By the time the broccoli or cauliflower leaves are massive and shading the lettuce, the lettuce has formed a nice head and is ready for harvest. From that point, the broccoli or cauliflower continues to grow and uses the water once allotted to the lettuce through the intermediate drip emitter (Roy uses drip lines with emitters that are eight inches apart).
I got great results from interplanting BCC with lettuce earlier this fall in my garden.
I harvested the lettuce successively over the course of a few weeks as the family needed it.
Today, the cauliflower is beginning to head up.
Interplanting BCC with cilantro and parsley
Another couple of complementary crops to place between BCC plants are cilantro and parsley. Just as with the lettuce, you want to plant them at the same time as the BCC. And you’ll start harvesting the cilantro or parsley long before the BCC leaves get so big as to shade them much.
Once the broad BCC leaves do shade them, you can harvest the whole cilantro or parsley plants. But I prefer to leave them be despite the shade, allowing them to go to flower whenever they feel ready. Bees, syrphid flies, lady bugs, and other beneficial insects enjoy cilantro and parsley flowers. Some of these insects will eat aphids, which can be a problem for broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage plants. It’s like you’re cultivating natural pest control in between the BCC plants.
Our gardens can be so much more productive, balanced, and beautiful than a typical farm through interplanting like this. That was my thought as I drove through the Salinas Valley last week where there are vast monocrops of broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage.
Here is a video showing spacing and interplanting with broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage in my garden two days ago on November 24, 2021:
You might like to read my more general post, “Growing broccoli and cauliflower in Southern California.”
You might also check out, “Dealing with aphids on broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower.”
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