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A superb vegetable when grown to moderate size and eaten fresh (or it freezes well) it is now, one reads, the Number One vegetable in America (so where is the potato?) But try to find taste information on varieties of Number One. Are they all so much alike in taste that it's meaningless? Hard to believe . . .
Broccoli can be divided into two broad classes: single-season and over-wintering. The overwintering (or "spring broccoli") types are for just that: planting in the fall and cropping in early spring. (Many purple types are for overwintering.) Because we have generous freezer capacity, we see no virtue in the overwintering types, which were developed to provide an early fresh green. Just be sure that you don't inadvertently plant an overwintering type when trying for a regular-season broccoli or you'll get poor or no crops.
The "standard" season broccolis can be further subdivided, if only roughly, into two other classes. The first produces chiefly a main head and only a few side shoots; the second, often called "sprouting broccoli", produces a small main head and (or but) after that is taken, a considerable quantity of side shoots that keep on coming for some time. The division is rough because even the mainhead types normally produce some side shoots, and even the long-production types have some sort of main head.
Some sources, all anecdotal, prefer this or that variety, but others assert that all, when grown properly, taste pretty much alike. Sigh. Though the home gardener cannot save seed of any brassica, owing to the immense likelihood of disease (growing brassica seed is a difficult process, and all commercial seed is eventually inspected for infection before sale), we nevertheless believe in using open-pollinated types only, to encourage and sustain the maintenance of a sound gene pool for this and all crops. There are only so many OP broccoli types readily available, so even the complete list is short, but we can further trim it. Hereabouts, though our summers are short, they can get quite hot. So, for cool-weather crops--like all the Brassicas--we need early kinds that are largely or wholly done producing before it starts to really heat up, and that is reflected in the cultivar list below.
Calabrese: this heirloom is a classic sprouting type; it is not especially early, but comfortably within the useful range hereabouts (60 - 75 days); reported excellent taste.
Green Goliath: a huge-growing mainhead type (55 days) that also does side shoots; overall reported a very heavy producer (5 lbs./plant) and, says one, "tolerant of extremes"; the most promising mainhead, developed especially for home growers.
Piracicaba: a newcomer, said to resemble a cross between heading broccoli and broccoli raab (see farther below), also fairly early (56 days). The Washington Post garden writer certainly liked it, while others give it mixed reviews; it is less sweet than regular broccoli, though nowhere near so bitter as raab; some like that, some don't.
(If one wanted to risk extending the season, one could also try De Cicco, another heirloom sprouting type, which runs around 85 - 90 days.)
There is a related vegetable--actually a turnip relative--called broccoli raab (also called by many other names--raab, rapa, rapini, rapine, rappone, turnip broccoli, spring broccoli, taitcat, Italian turnip, Italian mustard), which is a broccoli cousin whose edible parts are the leaves and stalk rather than florets--it's quite bitter and is either an acquired taste or useful as a very occasional novelty. We've done it, and, though we both have some taste for bitters, have decided that this is one we can do without.
For those who do like it, here is a bit more. The primary distinction in cultivars is between so-called "spring" and "fall" types: the fall types are really for overwintering, with the much earlier spring types, such as "Sessantina", being what's wanted for our climate (the fall types, spring-planted, bolt too easily). Most catalogues offer just a generic raab, but specialists in Italian vegetables have scads of named cultivars. Even so, exact and reliable cultivar information is hard to come by; we make no recommendation here.
Other recent curiosities, such as "broccoflower" (a broccoli/cauliflower cross) and Romanesco, which looks like the same idea, are of zero interest to us: we have store-bought some, and even grown the Romanesco (some years ago, elsewhere), and found them to be much like the once-touted potato/tomato combination plant--clever, but boring to the taste.
First, and always with any brassica crop: Remember to rotate your crops! Planting brassicas, of any kinds, in the same ground more often than once every four years runs the risk of clubroot infestation--and once you get that, the ground is useless for up to a decade. Don't take needless chances, even with "catch crops" of radishes.
This is a crop that's much better started indoors as seedlings for later transplanting to their outdoors home.
Timing here is tricky. We want our broccoli in the ground as early as practicable, so we can get them out as early as we can: broccoli growth slows above 68 degrees, and stops, possibly with damage, at 85 degrees. And while cole plants do not develop at temperatures below freezing, they can tolerate temperatures down to "killing freeze" levels--the low 20s or so. If we take the broccoli growing span to be roughly 60 days, we would ideally want them out by the end of April (when our daily high temperatures are in the mid-60s), which signifies that we would need to get them in the ground around March 1st. But that's risky for hard freezes: even broccoli can be killed off by 10° or 15° temperatures, and overnight lows in the single digits are not unheard of around here for March 1st.
Looking at the temperature tables, the dramatic killer low temperatures probability seems to ease toward mid-March, and to not change much after that till mid-May. We should, therefore, probably target our planting-out for mid-March, looking to a harvest in mid-May. That is not ideal at either end, but it looks like the best we can do. And, as we want our seedling to have a good 6 weeks indoors in pot before we transplant, that means starting seed around February 1st.
Broccoli raab, however, bolts easily, and so needs to be planted especially early: we can try March 1st as a target planting out-date. Otherwise, we treat it pretty much like regular broccoli.
Get your seeds started timely, because you want to transplant them when they're vigorous, but while still young: plants that remain too long in seed flats notoriously produce "button" heads soon after planting and then grow no more. A good compromise is to allow about 6 weeks for indoors growth.
Plant seed ¼ to ½ inch deep. Broccoli germinates best at a soil temperature of about 80° F., so keep your seed trays warm (there are pad-like electrical warmers that can keep nice, even temperatures in your seedling flats)--but keep the air temperature around seedlings, once they have germinated, mild, say 60° or so. Give them as much light as possible--use artificial light (plant-growth fluorescent tubes suspended about 2 inches above the seedlings' tops) if necessary--else they'll be leggy and weak. Provide for good air circulation around them, too. Keep developing seedlings at least an inch apart if using trays, or give them each a 2-inch pot.
A soil pH of 6.5 or higher is wanted; a soil pH of over 6.8 will help minimize clubroot risks, and a pH up to 7.5 is tolerable, though best yields come in at about 6.5 to 6.8. (Lime, preferably hydrated--as sold in practically any garden shop or decent hardware store--can be used to raise soil pH, but remember that it's harder to lower pH than to raise it, so don't get careless: make sure you do your calculations carefully, twice, before applying any lime.)
These things bush out quite a lot. In a deep-dug or raised bed, a plant spacing of about 15 inches is about right (we find that, just as they are supposed to, broccolis at that spacing form a nice canopy of "living mulch" cover).
Side-dress with nitrogen fertilizer when the plants are about half-grown. Be sure to provide ample soil moisture (duh--water well), most especially as the heads are developing. An organic mulch helps keep soils cool and moist and suppress weed growth--or, if you deep-bed garden, the plant leaves will form a "living mulch" over the growing area. Hand-pull or use shallow cultivation if additional weed control becomes necessary.
The green buds develop first in one large, central head, then later in several smaller side shoots. When the main head is fully developed, cut it, leaving 5 to 6 inches of stem attached. The main head will grow with small, tightly closed,all-green buds; it passes the ideal picking stage when the buds start to loosen and separate and the individual individual florets "concat"--that is, start to show yellow. (Broccoli left on the plant too long converts some of its sugars into a type of fiber called lignin, creating stems that will be tough no matter how long the cooking process.)
Obviously, the ideal is to pick the heads just before they start to loosen and yellow. That would appear to require you to possess a crystal ball; in reality, 1) if you watch carefully every day, you eventually--from your occasional misses--acquire enough experience to judge well; and 2) there's no disastrous loss if you let a head go a little too long, as long as you don't ever let any go a lot too long. Typical main-head size at readiness is at least 4 to 6 inches in diameter, and often larger. (Late side shoots may reach only 1 or 2 inches in diameter, though sometimes they too are larger, but they are normally bountiful.)
Removing the central head stimulates the side shoots to develop for later pickings. These side shoots grow from the axils of the lower leaves; you usually can continue to harvest plentiful broccoli shoots for several weeks after cutting the main head. (Italian, or Calabrese, types of broccoli are especially good at side-head production.)
If you plan carefully--and get lucky--you might be able to get two crops, a mid-season and a late-fall--from your broccoli beds. We haven't tried pushing that hard yet, but when we feel in better control, maybe even this coming year, we'll see. It sure would be nice--broccoli, like most brassicas, needs a lot of space, so doubling up would be wonderful.
Broccoli raab is grown for its leaves and stem, not its flowers, so watch it carefully, because it is fast-growing--the Sessantina Grossa type is listed as "35 days" in one New England seed catalogue (and that's from direct seeding: it's more like 20 to 25 from transplanting)--and it bolts quickly, turning even more bitter than usual, and thus becoming useless.
You can harvest broccoli raab all at once or gradually. For "all at once" harvest, plants are ready for harvest when they reach a height of 10-15 inches; cut them at ground level, or--if the stem is hard at its base--wherever the stem tissue ceases to be tough and becomes succulent (with luck, a second or even third cutting may be possible). Alternatively, you can keep the young leaves, flower buds, and stems lightly harvested over a continuous period of two to four weeks--cut the small flower heads before the flower buds open (these flower heads usually average about 1 to 1½ inches in diameter).
(In cooking, the leaves, stems, and any flower heads are normally cooked and eaten together.)
Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:
Broccoli is a member of the Brassica family, which also includes cauliflower (a close relative), Brussels sprouts, kale, rutabagas, turnips, kohlrabi, radishes, and various lesser crops like seakale and the true cresses (notably watercress).
Also, some people seem to have a genetic makeup that makes broccoli (and related plants) taste excessively bitter to them, which is why people can argue about something without realizing it may be a quite different experience for each of them.
The people we know as the Etruscans, who came from what is now Turkey, seem to have begun the known cultivation of broccoli--or at least its direct predecessor--almost three thousand years ago; its use eventually spread throughout the Eastern mediterranean area. In the 8th century B.C., the Etruscans began migrating to what is now Italy, and they brought broccoli with them, especially to what is now Tuscany.
The Romans were at once taken with broccoli. Pliny the Elder tells us that the Romans grew and enjoyed broccoli during the first century A.D. The vegetable became a standard favorite in Rome, where the variety called Calabrese--the most common type in the U.S. today--was developed. (Before the Calabrese variety was cultivated, most Romans ate purple sprouting broccoli, a type also still in wide use today.) Apicius, a Roman cookbook author, prepared broccoli by first boiling it and then bruising it "with a mixture of cumin and coriander seeds, chopped onion plus a few drops of oil and sun-made wine"; it was also commonly served with a variety of cream sauces, some cooked with wine, others flavored with herbs.
Broccoli has many strong branches or arms that grow from the main stem, each sprouting a sturdy budding cluster surrounded by leaves (Roman farmers called broccoli "the five green fingers of Jupiter"); unsurprisingly, the name broccoli thus comes from the Latin bracchium--"strong arm or branch."
Catherine de Medici of Tuscany is said to have first introduced broccoli to France when she went there as the new wife of Henri II in 1533 (she brought an army of chefs and new vegetables as well, and that is said to have been the beginning of France's rise to culinary significance--the Italians still say they taught the French everything they know about cooking, which is probably an exaggeration, though not a huge one).
By 1724, a British gardening writer referred to broccoli as a stranger in England, and called it "sprout colli-flower" or "Italian asparagus." When broccoli did arrive in England, in the early 18th century, no one spread the welcome mat. At that time, neither the French nor the English much cared for this vegetable.
Thomas Jefferson was an avid gardener and collector of seeds and plants of fruits and vegetables newly arriving in the United States. He recorded planting broccoli--along with radishes, lettuce, and cauliflower--in 1767. But as early as 1775, broccoli was described in A Treatise on Gardening by a Citizen of Virginia, by John Randolph, who wrote, "The stems will eat like Asparagus, and the heads like Cauliflower." Despite this encouraging description, broccoli was not much taken up in the U.S. (except by, a little later, Italian immigrants, many of whom who grew and ate it).
Broccoli popularity in the U.S. awaited the D'Arrigo brothers, Stephano and Andrea, immigrants from Messina, Italy; the brothers began with some trial plantings in California in 1922, shipping a few crates to Boston, where they somehow were well received. The time must have been right, for the brothers' enterprise ballooned; they grew, they advertised by on the then-new radio, and by the 1930s broccoli was an established favorite in the land (many thinking it some newly developed vegetable). Today, it is perhaps the number one vegetable in the U.S. (despite a few persons' curious distaste for it).
Thoroughly famous cartoon from The New Yorker magazine--mother and small son at table, son glaring at his plate:
Mother: "It's broccoli, dear."
Son: "I say it's spinach, and I say to hell with it."
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