Growing broccoli is like hunting quail

Posted Aug. 30, 2008, at 2:19 p.m.

When I was a boy — I’m going back 45 years here — I hunted bobwhite quail with my father and our English setter, Priscilla. Every Saturday from November to February, we followed Prissy through South Georgia cornfields, sometimes just the two of us, more often with one of Dad’s friends, usually Stanford Ginn.

We drove two predawn hours to get there, walked all day, shot over many covey rises and chased singles through cane breaks until dark. On a good day we returned to the old Chevy wagon with at most two dozen birds, this after each of us used up a box of shells. We were never a serious threat to the Georgia quail population.

At the end of the day, Dad would always give all of our quail to Mr. Ginn, or the neighbor. It was a rare Saturday evening that we stood over the kitchen sink cleaning birds.

Every time Dad made the offer, Stanford would say, “Naw, George, you and the boy shot ’em, you keep ’em.”

Dad would always respond the same way. “Hell, Stanford, if I wanted the meat, I’d stay home and buy a chicken.” Dad had calculated that each quail, less meat than half a small chicken breast, cost at least $5 in gas and ammunition.

Late one recent evening, after finally planting 15 broccoli seedlings in Marjorie’s garden, I paused to consider all the time and effort already invested and to be invested, and thought, if I wanted the broccoli, I’d leave the garden and go to the market.

First, the seeds had to be sown twice. I mistakenly left the first sowing, covered with a plastic dome to prevent loss of moisture, in direct sun. Heat killed the seeds.

After the second sowing germinated, I wanted to give the seedlings as much sun as possible without leaving them exposed to hard rains, which came often and mainly at night. For two weeks I moved that seed flat back and forth, into the sun in the morning, under the porch roof at night. When we had to leave town for a few days, I took no chances and left the seedlings protected from potential rain.

When the seedlings had their first true leaves, I planted them to individual pots using a mix of potting soil and compost. These too had to be moved back and forth, never two sunny days in a row.

Finally, a month after sowing, the seedlings were ready for planting. I prepared the bed, one that had been used to grow peas earlier in the year, digging in composted goat manure.

After planting, I watered the seedlings with 20-20-20 liquid fertilizer and surrounded each one with diatomaceous earth to frustrate the slugs. Finally, to thwart the imported cabbageworm, I covered the entire bed with Reemay, a spun-bonded polyester cloth supported over the seedlings with wire hoops and sealed around the edges with lengths of firewood. Light, air and moisture will penetrate the cloth, but not cabbageworm butterflies. The temperature under the material is increased by a couple of degrees, helping to increase the rate of seedling growth and protect the mature plants against early frost damage.

When all is said and done, maybe I will harvest enough for the three of us to eat fresh broccoli over two or three weeks. But it will be broccoli that I grew, start to finish, pesticide-free, fresh as it can be. And for that two or three weeks, I will reap the satisfaction of accomplishment.

My father, as he grew older, left his shotgun at home and carried a camera instead. It had always been about watching a good dog work.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@ptc-me.net. Include name, address and telephone number.

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