Hearty, nutritious broccoli likes rich soil

I suspect many of you know Joe Carcione - Joe the greengrocer of TV fame. I met him a year ago on our 12-inch black-and-white picture tube.

The point is, Joe is a most knowledgeable commentator on what to look for in fresh vegetables. And what he said a few weeks ago about broccoli warmed my heart. Broccoli, he said, was ''the most nutritious member of the cabbage family.''

That makes it into one of the most nutritious of all crops, period.

I suspect most gardeners will appreciate the Carcione assessment of broccoli because most of them grow it once they have graduated beyond tomatoes, zucchini, and maybe a midsummer patch of snap beans. It's a popular backyard crop, in other words.

Broccoli rates ahead of its cousin, cauliflower, among the grow-your-own set because it is a cut-and-come-again vegetable. By that I mean it produces a good center head - anywhere from 6 to 10 inches across - and produces small side heads for several weeks thereafter.

Broccoli rates ahead of its cousin, cauliflower, among the grow-your-own set because it is a cut-and-come-again vegetable. By that, I mean it produces a good center head - anywhere from 6 to 10 inches across - and produces samll side heads for several weeks thereafter.

I generally buy started plants for my spring broccoli patch and sow seeds outdoors in a separte nursery bed to provide seedlings for the fall crop. In this corner of New England I set out the first seedlings in early April; the fall-crop plants are transplanted in July from seed sown in mid-June. In warmer regions the spring crop is set out several weeks earlier, and the fall crop goes in several weeks later.

Broccoli has a hearty appetite. Give it a good rich soil, and it grows up to be big and succulent; give it adequate space and it will produce impressive side shoots as well.

I like to give each seedling a trowelful of compost and a sprinkling of bone meal and woodash, which is dug into the planting hole. Or you can throw in a balanced fertilizer as directed on the package.

Set the plants about 18 inches apart if you're looking for a big initial head followed by good side shoots.

Look for seedlings that are about four inches tall and fresh-looking (though even older plants will perform well for you in a humus-rich soil). I set the seedlings out about a half-inch deeper than they were in the seed tray and protect them from cutworms with a collar of stiff paper. Another option is to push a straight stick or a medium-sized nail into the soil alongside the stem of the plant to prevent a cutworm from wrapping itself around the seedling, something it must do if it is to eat.

Brocolli seedlings can withstand frost down to about 25 degrees F. (older plants to about 20 degrees F.), but when first set out they would appreciate some protection from the chill winds of spring. I cover my plants with plastic milk jugs from which the bottoms have been removed, leaving the screwtops off the jugs. Once the plants have established themselves, the jugs are removed.

It is important to get strong early growth because the larger the plant when it starts to head up, the larger the head will be. So you might want to give your plants a little liquid fertilizer about 10 days or so after setting out. This is particularly important if the weather is cold because cold temperatures lock up much of the nitrogen in organically-rich soils.

The nutrients in organic materials are only made available to the plants as the soil microbes digest them, and these microbes stay largely inactive at temperatures below 45 degrees F.

Another application of liquid fertilizer (fish emulsion, compost, or manure tea are my choices) just as the broccoli heads start to form is also helpful.

When cutting the principal head remove a good deal of the center stalk, always being sure to leave several big leaves on the plant. This causes fewer side shoots to form, but the result is larger side heads.

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