I have great respect for Broccoli because it appreciates the cool climate in which we live. In a long, cold spring, a summer with little sun, or a fall with no Indian summer, there is always Broccoli and all it asks is that I keep up with the picking. Gladly I can keep up with the picking and make a whole meal out of Broccoli, olive oil, and garlic. Our basic green broccoli, sometimes called “sprouting broccoli” and ‘calabrese’ in Europe, came originally from Italy. It makes a big plant with deep, spreading roots. Broccoli is an edible green plant in the cabbage family whose large flowering head is eaten as a vegetable.
The big broccoli “bunch” that you buy in the grocery store, really an immature flower head, is usually only the beginning for the home gardener. After the central cluster is cut back, side shoots develop that can be back, and side shoots develop that can be harvested for a long time if the summer is not blistering hot. In warm-summer climates the tight buds will “rice,” or open as flowers too soon, thus ending the crop, so southern gardeners plant all crops that will bear well into the winter instead.
Select Site for Broccoli
Choose a spot with good drainage and air circulation where broccoli and other members of the genus Brassica have not grown for several years. Full sun is nice, but partial shade will also sustain broccoli and can even retard bolting. The plot need not be large. Even though the plants get fairly sizable (2-2 1/2 feet tall and spread) each one produces a lot of broccoli. Six plants in a 4-foot-by-6-foot plot is a good number to start with. Passionate broccoli eaters will want more.
Select Soil for Broccoli
Soil should be fairly rich, to begin with. As a leaf-and-stem crop, broccoli needs plenty of nitrogen. I dig in a shovelful of well-rotted manure. For each plant, you could substitute a shovelful of compost or a small handful of 10-10-10. Calcium is important; you can make sure it is thereby adding crushed limestone. Keep in mind that this will also raise the pH—something you would want to do anyway if your soil is acidic. The ideal for broccoli is a neutral 7.0. It is even more important to add organic matter to the soil, to help it retain the steady moisture supply that broccoli needs.
In planting broccoli there are several schedules you can follow. Start seeds indoors in a sunny but cool place, six or seven weeks before the last average frost date. And set the seedlings out as 5- to 6-inch plants, two or three weeks before the last expected frost. Or you can sow directly in the garden; in a cool climate. So you can do this a month or two before the last frost; in a warm one do it in very early spring. Usually, broccoli is grown from seedlings transplanted into the garden. Either one you grow yourself or one you purchase in a nursery.
After preparing the planting holes as described above, set the transplants an inch or two lower in the ground than they were in their pots or flats, watering them and firming the soil around them. Cover the young plants if you think there might be a really hard freeze. Though the space seedlings are about 18 inches apart from each way if you are using a grid, or 18 inches apart in rows with 2-3 feet between the rows. For direct seeding in the garden, sow several seeds in hills and later snip off all but the strongest plant in each. Space the hills the same distance apart as you would transplants.
Cutworms like young broccoli plants, so it is a good idea to use collars to roil them whichever planting method you use. When summers are hot, people seed a second crop in late spring or early summer. That will mature once alter danger of ricing is passed, or they sow a later crop for fall harvest. A crop can even be sown in fall and wintered over for a spring harvest if winters are mild.
To save space the early crops can be inter-planted with something else if the plants are wide enough apart. Fall crops are seeded in July or August. A good mulch will help the plants retain moisture. But in times of drought give them a good long soaking with a hose if the soil is dry. Extra enrichment is really needed only when you’re trying to hasten maturity to beat the heat. In this case, a side dressing of blood meal or fish emulsion soaked in (not dug in) helps.
Pests and Diseases
The only pest that ever bothered my broccoli was the small green cabbage worm, which is very common. It never did much damage to the plants, but it had a way of turning up as a surprise garnish at the dinner table. Well camouflaged by its color, even after picking, the worm turns white when cooked. “Good protein!” a well-brought-up dinner guest may exclaim diplomatically, but unless your diners have an unusually good sense of humor, you’ll want to check ‘carefully for worms before cooking or soak the broccoli in salt water to kill and dislodge them.
If they really chew up your plants, catch them early next year by applying rotenone or BT when you see the cabbage white. Moreover, butterflies fluttered above them, though you might prefer author Catherine Osgood’s poster’s method. She goes out and swats the butterflies with a tennis racket. Spray off aphids, and foil root maggots with tar-paper mats. Most hugs won’t bother your late crops. Diseases like blackleg, black rot, and clubroot are best prevented by crop rotation. In the case of clubroot (puny, yellowed plants with misshapen roots), boost the pH to 7.0 with some lime.
When the first nice bunch has formed in the center of the plant (it won’t be huge, like the one in the store, unless it is a large-head variety), cut it off at 4-6 inches with a sharp knife. New ones will form in the leaf axils around it, and all over the lower stalk. If you don’t keep picking, the green heads will send up tall yellow flowers. A row of blossoming broccoli looks beautiful.
But is embarrassing to a good gardener, for it means that the plant will stop producing edible stalks. So keep up with the picking, even if you cannot keep up with the eating and freezing. You can cook and eat stalks with flowers that have started open. But the opened buds turn brownish when cooked and look almost as unappetizing as cooked cabbage worms.
The popular broccoli varieties are ‘Waltham 29,’ the early `DeCicco,’ and ‘Calabrese’ (`Green Sprouting’). Most people prefer the ones with good side-shoot production, not the ones that produce just a one-shot head like the ones sold in stores, although sometimes this is exactly what you want, either for a quick spring crop before a hot summer, or to make freezing the crop more efficient. ‘Green Comet Hybrid’ is a good fast-maturing variety for this purpose.
‘Premium Crop’ is a good single-crop variety. ‘Green Duke’ is a good variety for the south. Another kind of broccoli that is recently very popular is broccoli raab or raaba or rabb or di rapa, depending on how you spell it. This is grown by direct seeding in rows or blocks. It never forms ahead at all, just small branches. Both these and the young leaves are tender and delicious.