Sulfur, Calcium and Boron for Cole Crops

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;


Apart from recommended NPK fertility programs, growers of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, and collards need to pay attention to sulfur, calcium, and boron in their cole crop fertility programs.

In vegetable crops, sulfur removal is generally in the 10-20 lb/A range. Mustard family crops (cole crops, mustards, turnips and radishes) remove between 30 and 40 lbs/A of sulfur.


Severe tipburn in cabbage.

Severe tipburn in cabbage.


Most of the sulfur in the upper part of the soil is held in organic matter. Upon mineralization, sulfur is found in the soil as the sulfate ion (SO42-) which has two negative charges. The sulfate ion is subject to leaching, especially in sandy textured soils (loamy sands, sandy loams). It does accumulate in the subsoil but may not be available for shallow rooted vegetables.

Sulfur can be added by using sulfate containing fertilizers such as ammonium sulfate, potassium sulfate, and K-mag (sulfate of potassium and magnesium). It is also a component of gypsum (calcium sulfate). In liquid solutions, ammonium thiosulfate is often used as the sulfur source. Sulfur is also found in manures and composts. For example, broiler litter has about 12-15 lbs of sulfur per ton.

Calcium deficiency is most commonly seen as tipburn of cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. This problem can cause severe economic losses. Tipburn is a breakdown of plant tissue inside the head of cabbage, individual sprouts in Brussels sprouts, and on the inner wrapper leaves of cauliflower. It is a physiological disorder which is associated with an inadequate supply of calcium in the affected leaves, causing a collapse of the tissue and death of the cells. Calcium deficiency may occur where the soil calcium is low or where there is an imbalance of nutrients in the soil along with certain weather and soil nutrient conditions, such as high humidity, low soil moisture, high potash or high nitrogen, all of which can reduce calcium availability. Secondary rot caused by bacteria can follow tipburn and heads of cauliflower can be severely affected.

Some cabbage and cauliflower cultivars are relatively free of tipburn problems. Check with your seed supplier for tipburn resistant varieties and choose tipburn resistant varieties where possible. Manage liming so that soil pH is above 6.0 and calcium levels are optimal. Avoid using only ammonium forms of nitrogen, and ensure an adequate and even supply of water. Adjust planting date so that head maturation occurs during cooler temperatures. In general, calcium foliar sprays have not been shown to be effective for controlling tipburn incidence.

Cole crops have a high boron requirement. Symptoms of boron deficiency vary with the cole crop. Cabbage heads may simply be small and yellow. Most cole crops develop cracked and corky stems, petioles and midribs. The stems of broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower can be hollow and are sometimes discolored. Cauliflower curds become brown and leaves may roll and curl. It is important to note that cole crops are also sensitive to boron toxicity if boron is over-applied. Toxicity symptoms appear as scorching on the margins of older leaves.

It is recommended in broccoli and kale to apply 1.5-3 pounds of boron (B) per acre in mixed fertilizer prior to planting. In Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards and cauliflower, boron and molybdenum are recommended. Apply 1.5-3 pounds of boron (B) per acre and 0.2 pound molybdenum (Mo) applied as 0.5 pound sodium molybdate per acre with broadcast fertilizer. Boron may also be applied as a foliar treatment to cole crops if soil applications were not made. The recommended rate is 0.2-0.3 lb/acre of actual boron (1.0 to 1.5 lbs of Solubor 20.5%) in sufficient water (30 or more gallons) for coverage. Apply foliar boron prior to heading of cole crops.