It is hardly an exaggeration to describe broccoli as “the wonder vegetable”. It is the most nutritionally rich of all vegetables and, as everyone knows by now, a major agent in preventing different kinds of cancer and heart disease.
Fresh, home grown broccoli is best because it loses more nutritional value the longer it is stored.
Broccoli contains significant amounts of vitamin C, vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene), calcium, folic acid, fibre and two phytochemicals. One of these phytochemicals increases the activity of a group of enzymes in our bodies that suppress cancer-causing agents. Broccoli’s high calcium content may help prevent colon cancer and its high fibre content may also contribute to colon health.
Now that you know that you can’t afford not to grow broccoli, the other piece of good news is that this vegetable is easier and quicker to grow than those other Brassicas, cabbage and cauliflower.
Broccoli grows in any type of soil, but for a good crop, dig in as much compost as possible, as well as bone meal or superphosphate. It is a heavy feeder.
Sow seed from February (in cooler areas), March and April. Being a cool season vegetable, broccoli likes day temperatures of between 10 to 20°C. It must certainly not exceed 26°C because the plants will bolt. Growth will slow down in winter but then pick up for a spring harvest. If you are able to sow early enough you might get a first crop in autumn. Good broccoli varieties to try include: Green Sprout Calabrese (which is late maturing), Green Valiant and Premium Crop.
You can sow seed directly into beds but seedling trays are preferable. Plant out the seedlings when they are big enough to handle – usually about four to five weeks after sowing. They shouldn’t be allowed to get too tall or leggy as this decreases their yield. Broccoli is generally a high yielder and about six plants, per succession planting, should be enough for a family of four – hence our preference for seedling trays, otherwise one tends to over sow. At least two (but preferably three) successive sowings will give you a long and steady supply of broccoli. Allow three to four weeks between plantings.
Space plants at least 50 cm apart with rows about 50 to 60 cm apart. This will provide sufficient space for large broccoli heads to develop. It also allows air to circulate freely, which helps to prevent fungal diseases.
Keep beds free of weeds. A month after transplanting, and again after harvesting the main head, feed with a liquid fertiliser or a granular fertiliser. If necessary, mound the soil up around the stems.
Most pests hibernate during the cold weather so broccoli that grows through winter will generally not be affected by pests. Once the first heads and subsequent regrowth have been harvested, the plants should be removed. If allowed to remain, they become havens for aphids and other pests.
The main head of each plant should be ready for harvesting within six to eight weeks of planting out the seedlings. The heads must be harvested before the flower buds open (start showing yellow) and when they are still firm and compact. Remove the head with about 15cm of stem. Side shoots will then develop and bear smaller heads that can also be harvested when they are firm. A single plant can produce continuously for up to a month.
Broccoli wilts quickly so it is best picked just before you are about to cook it (or eat it raw). It can be stored in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator for about four days. If you have excess, consider whipping up some broccoli dishes and freezing them. Broccoli can also be blanched and then frozen – dunk it in boiling salted water for two minutes, remove, strain, dunk in iced water, pack into containers and freeze.
Broccoli is incredibly versatile. It can be steamed, blanched, stir fried, sautéed, boiled or eaten raw. When boiling, cook it in strongly salted water with the lid off so that the sulphurous fumes escape and don’t stay in the vegetable. Don’t overcook as this reduces the nutritional value.