In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
Broccoli has become a ubiquitous vegetable, so why grow it? Taste, of course.
In Celebration of Broccoli
Our regions have grown cabbage and collards for more than a century, but both fall way short of broccoli's popularity in 2011.
Broccoli is a fine source of potassium, iron, vitamins A and C, carotene, dietary fiber and antioxidants, topping most lists of the foods you should eat for best nutrition. Originally taken from what is now Turkey to Tuscany, where it achieved fame among the ancient Romans, broccoli was included in Pliny's writings. It became a standard in Mediterranean countries but was less well-accepted in Europe. Thomas Jefferson writes of growing broccoli at Monticello in 1767, but it found few fans here, except in some Italian-American communities, until the 20th century. Nowadays, 80%-90% of the fresh broccoli consumed in the US is grown here and just about every grocery store and restaurant offers it, yet it is still anathema to some.
Beyond Bad Broccoli
Maybe it's the fact that most broccoli is served overcooked or that long shipping times can bring on very strong tastes. Like most vegetables, broccoli changes internally after it is cut and in this case, age and ship time accelerate its path to poor taste by converting fragile sugars into woody lignin.
Maybe it's because nearly all the broccoli we eat is the same kind, calabrese, or heading broccoli, and it's green. A child that refuses to eat anything green might be tempted by purple or white varieties of broccoli, which look a lot like cauliflower, or by the yellowish green hues of a 20th century hybrid broccoflower.
There are other types of broccoli that make excellent eating, but are uncommon in markets -- try growing these yourself. Sprouting broccoli, which produces many small shoots rather than one large head, takes longer to grow than calabrese, so takes space in the garden for many more weeks and costs more when you can find it at the market. Romanesco broccoli matures into multiple, yellow-green heads. Both it and sprouting broccoli are delicious fresh from the garden, but do not ship well. Also more subject to rapid decline after harvest is broccoli raab, also called Italian or Chinese broccoli. Its flavor is the most naturally pungent of this group, but even its sharp taste is milder than the woody, overcooked classic broccoli found on too many plates.
Easy to Grow
The best way to get the real, fresh taste that broccoli can deliver is to grow it yourself, and now is the time to do that in our regions. Look for small transplants or sow seeds of varieties such as Packman, Green Comet, Gypsy, Premium Crop (AAS) or Greenbelt. Broccoli plants need 4 inches between stems in a row or bed. If you sow directly into the garden, this can mean painful thinning if you overplant these tiny seeds. Thin as soon as the plants have their seed leaves and one set of true leaves. If you've planted way to close, use little scissors to snip off stems crowding the one you want to leave.
Broccoli is known as a relatively heavy feeder; that is, you'll need to fertilize. Most recommendations call for 4 pounds of vegetable garden fertilizer (5-10-5) per 100 feet of row. Apply 3 weeks after planting and again 3 weeks later. If using organic formulas, wait 4 weeks to add more fertilizer.
We often grow broccoli with its relatives like cabbage and cauliflower. The general term for all these relations is cole crops or cruciferous vegetables. The same pests can bother all of them, but the biggest threats to healthy broccoli are chewing caterpillars. Depending on where you live, you'll see white or tan moths flitting about the garden late in the afternoon. They may look harmless, but they lay hundreds of eggs on young broccoli plants that soon hatch and begin feeding. A daily garden walk is the only way you'll see the caterpillars soon enough to stop them. Pick them off while they are still small and immediately dust or spray the plants with Bt, a natural microbial insecticide. Keep a close eye on the plants and continue picking off the caterpillars for about a week until the Bt gets to work on them.
Harvest broccoli while the heads are still tight for best flavor. Once the little green sprouts begin to separate, flavor begins to deteriorate.
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