BROCCOLI – GARDENING TIPS FROM THE CULINARY VIEW
as recommended by Michael Vidrine
It’s official, we are now in the Winter season. In fact, January is usually our coldest month of the year with an average high of 60 and an average low of 40. Farther North, these would be considered Springtime temperatures. We will get a lot of variability around the averages however with unusually warm days and occasional cold temperatures well below freezing. All through the Winter and right up to the advent of warm temperatures in the Spring, our cool season hardy vegetables keep producing – including one of our favorites – broccoli.
Broccoli (Brassica oleracea Italica cultivar) was developed from a wild cabbage relative in ancient Italy in the region which is now Tuscany. It has been a common vegetable since the time of the Roman Empire. The word ‘broccoli” is derived from a Latin word for arm or branch. The Brassica genus has given us a lot of other broccoli cousins including cabbage, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens and kohlrabi. All of these cabbage family vegetables are often referred to as “cole” crops from the Latin word for stem. OK – that’s it for the Latin lesson.
Broccoli comes in various forms and colors with the most common being the Calabrese with its large green head. Broccolini and sprouting broccoli types develop smaller and more numerous heads on slender stems. A beautiful, if unusual looking, broccoli is the Romanescu which tends to be lime green with spiraling pointed heads. Purple broccoli is quite purple indeed and shaped somewhat like a cauliflower. Every year there seems to be even more forms and varieties available as breeders continue to have fun with this vegetable.
The broccoli head is actually a large grouping of unopened flower buds along with a bit of stem. If you let broccoli continue to mature, the buds will open and pretty yellow flowers will emerge which is great for bees but past its prime for our consumption. Broccoli is definitely a cool season crop which we most often start in the fall and grow until spring. It can be started in the early spring as well as long as it is given enough time to “head up” before warm weather arrives. Given how quickly our spring turns to summer, we have usually found fall and winter growing to be more consistent.
Broccoli will do best in full sunlight in a well drained slightly acidic soil with lots of organic matter. The plant has a shallow root system and likes an evenly moist but not saturated soil. In heavy clay soils (which is often the case in our area) it may be best to grow broccoli in raised beds. Broccoli plants are fairly large so I plant them on 18 inch centers. Planting varieties that mature relatively quickly ups the odds of a good harvest. Broccoli seedlings transplant very easily or broccoli can be direct seeded. Planting bought transplants can often advance the harvest by two or more weeks and is probably the best way to go in the short Spring season.
When direct seeding, I start the seedlings on 2 to 3 inch spacing in a shaded part of the garden and then thin and transplant to permanent locations and spacing. Varieties recommended by our Local Master Gardeners include Bonanza, Calabrese, Packman and Premium Crop. An older variety, Waltham, has also done well for us.
Broccoli can have a few pest and disease issues – usually fungal problems, aphids and cabbage worms but these are generally well controlled with appropriate pesticides. Once it is consistently cool, pest issues seem to be mostly over. To reduce the disease and pest risks, it is advisable to rotate cabbage family plants in the garden and not plant them in the same place year to year. Mild cold snaps do not usually bother our broccoli at all but if temperatures well below freezing are expected, covering with light frost cloths can reduce damage to the plants.
Harvest broccoli once the heads are fully developed but before the buds begin to open. Cut the heads off with a sharp knife along with a few inches of the stem attached. Most broccoli are a cut and come again vegetable. Once the main head is harvested, the plant will continue to develop secondary smaller heads. We generally continue our harvest until warm spring temperatures cause the plants to bolt into flower (or until I just do not want to eat broccoli any more).
Broccoli can be stored in the refrigerator for about 5 days and can be blanched and frozen for up to a year. If you wish, the young tender leaves of the broccoli can also be harvested and used like collard greens.
One cup of broccoli has as much vitamin C as an orange and a host of other vitamins, minerals and fiber. Boiling broccoli tends to wash out a lot of its nutrients so it is generally better to roast, steam, stir-fry, microwave or even grill. Broccoli is also great raw in a salad or used like a chip to scoop up a favorite dip, peanut butter or hummus. My grandchildren like to nibble broccoli florets right in the garden – oddly they don’t care for it as much at the dinner table. We eat a lot of broccoli simply roasted with a bit of olive oil and maybe a sprinkling of parmesan or Balsamic vinegar. Broccoli cheese soup is a staple during the winter and we freeze some too. For a really yummy light supper, try a broccoli and ham quiche paired a nice white wine.
Give broccoli a place in your garden – it is really good for you, pretty easy to grow, produces for a very long season and will feed the bees if you let it go to flower.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor