Rachel Vogan shares her tips on growing one of the nation’s favourite vegetables.
Broccoli is that one crop that should always be on the menu. Being a hardy vegetable, it can be grown all year round. Whether served hot or cold, it is enjoyed by many, and often referred to as the country’s favourite vegetable. Broccoli is an all rounder and can easily be grown from the top of the north to the bottom of the south.
Now the soil is cooler and the nights are closing in, broccoli and its fellow brassicas come into their own. Yes, over summer, broccoli thrives too, but if it had its choice it would say it prefers the cooler shoulder seasons.
Did you know the flowers are edible? They have a distinctive broccoli taste, and last for a few days in water once picked. And bees love them too, so if you have the room and the inclination, let a plant or two, run to flower.
Cut and come again
One of the wonderful things about broccoli is that once the main head is cut, and the stalk is left in the ground, new side shoots will grow, extending the cropping period of each plant. The subsequent crop will be smaller, more like broccolini, but just as tasty. One plant can keep producing side shoots for up to three months, even more in some cases.
Waste not, want not
Did you know the leaves and stalks are edible, too? The stalks make the most wonderful fritters, simply grate or julienne into fine strips and drop into any basic fritter batter. The leaves finely shredded add a broccoli flavour to slaws and energy salads.
One pot wonders
Over the cooler months, when time and daylight is limited, you may like to grow your broccoli in a spot where it is easy to pick when you come home in the dark. Planting it in tubs or buckets near the house is a good option. An average kitchen bucket has a 10-litre capacity, this is the ideal size for one broccoli plant. A row of broccoli lined up on the deck looks pretty awesome as well.
Seed versus seedlings
Look for ready-grown seedlings to plant out now; seed will germinate readily, but the plants will struggle to get any decent size on them before winter snuggles in. Seed is best sown in late winter, ready to plant out in September and October.
I grow broccoli all year round and for some reason my heads were exceptionally big this season. One barely fitted into a 30cm pie dish. Early in January, my broccoli won 1st prize at the Little River A&P Show – it was twice the size of anyone else’s. I told the other entrants it must be because of all those stories I tell them each night! But it’s more than likely the annual side-dressing of chook manure from the chicken coop. It has loads of straw and hay in it, which mulches and feeds the soil.
New on the menu – ‘Broccoletti’
This hybrid vegetable is a cross between broccoli and kale. It is said to have an asparagus-like flavour. Look out for it and let us know how it fares.
Top tips for the best broccoli
1. Plant now
Aim to plant out a couple of rows well before winter arrives. A punnet or two in March and another in April should see a family well catered for until later on in spring. The more growth plants have on them before winter hits the better the crop will fare. While broccoli happily grows through winter, its growth rate slows down to about half, that’s why it is essential to get your first lot of seedlings in the ground soon.
2. Sunny side up
Broccoli needs to get at least half a day in full sun, any less than this and the plant struggles to develop a decent head. It doesn’t matter if it is morning or afternoon sun, just as long as it gets at least four hours a day. Bear in mind that once daylight saving finishes the days will be shorter, so a spot in afternoon sun will change.
3. Rich, moist soil
Broccoli loathes a dry hot soil, which is why it can struggle in hot, dry summers. To help the soil hold onto its moisture, ensure plenty of organic matter is blended into the ground before planting out. Don’t go crazy with too much animal poop, though, as this can provide too much nitrogen, which will encourage leaf growth rather than the required head growth.
Select short fat-looking seedlings to plant out, avoid anything with long, spindly stems. Allow 30-50cm between plants. After planting, add layers of mulch or straw between plants to protect them from wind damage and to keep the soil moist and weeds away.
5. Bug watch
Slugs and snails are rather partial to the tender young leaves of broccoli. Lay pellets or eggshells around young plants to deter these pests. White butterflies are another nemesis. Throwing nets over plants in autumn prevents the butterflies from landing on the leaves and laying eggs. Of course, you can spray the butterflies and sprinkle derris dust as control measures.