Packed with goodness and with their own delicate flavour, which has made them a favourite with gourmet chefs, broccoli and its close cousin, calabrese deserve to be on the menu on your plot, too. Follow our easy guide to growing these nutritious crops.
Recent research proves what gardeners and mums with families to feed have known for years – green veg is good for you. But broccoli and calabrese are top of the charts when it comes to sheer food value. They may not be a natural favourite with children – for ‘delicate’ flavour, some might read ‘bland‘ –but there are plenty of ways to liven up this versatile crop from simply mixing with other veg to adding tasty sauces or using in pies and quiches. The key is never to overcook it – light steaming or stir-frying ensures that the flavour and nutrients remain. The spears are also delicious raw in dips and come at a time when there is little else to harvest.
Sow the seeds of both vegetables in cell trays or direct in the soil from the beginning of March to the end of May.
If sowing in trays to produce plug plants for planting out from May onwards, sow 6mm (1?4in) deep in any good sowing or multi-purpose compost, one seed per cell. Cover with more compost and water well before covering the trays with a propagator lid to maintain humidity (optional). Heat is not necessary. Your seeds should germinate within7-14 days.
If sowing broccoli in a nursery bed in the open plot prepare the soil beforehand. Ideally choose a sunny spot where the soil was manured the previous autumn and sow a short row thinly across the plot or bed. This is your nursery row and when the seedlings are large enough – ie when they are from 10-15cm (4-6in) tall and before they become stretched, they should be transplanted.
Calabrese can be grown in nursery beds in the same way, but does not appreciate being disturbed and can instead be sown at 15cm(6in) stations in the open soil, two seeds per station, later thinning to the strongest seedling. A week before sowing, rake in some general fertiliser such as Growmore or pelleted chicken manure to sustain the seedlings in the early stages – 28-56g/sq m (1-2oz/sq yd) is ideal. Sow the seeds 1cm (1?2in) deep in rows 15cm (6in) apart and cover with fine soil before watering thoroughly and labelling clearly.
Scatter some organic slug pellets sparingly along the rows and cover with wire mesh or a fleece tunnel to deter birds.
As with virtually all other brassicas, once the soil in the area intended for your calabrese or broccoli has been dug it should be allowed to settle prior to sowing or planting. If planted into loose soil, the heads tend to be of poor quality. If digging was completed late, tread the soil with the feet or place a board over the planting area and walk up and down a few times to compress it. Plant purple and white sprouting varieties of broccoli 65-75cm (26-30in) apart, burying any stretched stems as you do so and firming the soil around the roots well with the fingers.
Calabrese is planted 15cm (6in) apart in the rows, with rows 30cm (12in) apart. If planting out cell-raised plants, water the trays well prior to planting and in all cases ‘puddle in‘ each young plant with plenty of water after planting to settle the soil around the roots. As with the nursery rows take precautions against birds, slugs and snails immediately after planting.
Maintain watering in dry spells and consider applying a mulch of well rotted organic matter. Avoid anything with lots of nitrogen such as grass clippings as this encourages soft, leafy growth. Broccoli is likely to become top heavy, especially on exposed sites, so stake each plant with a strong cane if necessary and earth up around the base, firming with the heel to prevent root damage due to wind rock.
Watch for pests during the season, spraying as necessary, however, once plants are well established, birds and slugs tend to become less of a problem. You should however, consider netting against cabbage white butterflies from the end of June onwards. Remove weeds as they appear to prevent them from competing with the crop and harbouring pests and diseases.
KG TOP TIPS
When sowing, choose early varieties to sow first, following these with later types a few weeks afterwards to extend the cropping season.
‘Purple Sprouting‘ and ‘White Sprouting‘: Both tried and trusted old varieties. Of the two, purple tends to produce the heaviest yields, although some consider white to have the edge for flavour. Widely available.
‘Extra Early Rudolph‘: One of the first varieties to break the rules and to allow gardeners to harvest spears as early as November. Large, purple heads.
‘Ironman F1‘: Large heads on vigorous plants. Good disease resistance. ‘Parthenon F1‘: Reliable variety even in a poor summer.
‘Aquiles F1‘: Cropping in as little as 65 days after sowing. Can also be sown in September for harvesting in May.
‘Belstar F1‘: An early type producing large, tender heads. Some mildew resistance. So what is the difference between sprouting broccoli and calabrese? Not much since both have the same botanical origins – Brassica oleracea Italica Group.
However, the part that you eat is quite different in appearance – calabrese consists of one large head, sprouting broccoli of lots of smaller ones.
Supermarkets add to the confusion; most class both as ‘calabrese‘. It matters to gardeners because calabrese is relatively tender and fast maturing – ideal as a summer/autumn vegetable, while broccoli grows slowly over winter and is harvested from late autumn to early summer. Modern breeding is blurring this distinction as more summer-autumn maturing broccolis are introduced by seed companies allowing us to harvest almost all year round.