Homegrown broccoli harvested fresh from the garden has a tender succulence that is as precious and rare as the flavor of sun-ripened tomatoes, so I always grow some type of broccoli in my spring garden. While big, tight heads are fun to grow (see the tips in How to Grow Better Broccoli), this year I’m going headless with broccoli brethren grown for their numerous stems. These include super-early broccoli rabe, also called rapini or raab, which I’ll follow with sprouting broccoli, often sold as broccolini or baby broccoli in stores.
Both crops are rich in vitamins A, C and K. They are as easy to grow as regular broccoli, and because they are cut-and-come again vegetables, the harvest goes on for weeks. I like to grow 3 or 4 plants of each type in spring, and then again in autumn.
Growing Broccoli Rabe
This rather ancient vegetable is actually a turnip subtype classified as Brassica rapa Ruvo group. Broccoli rabe probably originated in China, and later became popular in southern Italy. Growing broccoli rabe is fun and fast. The large seeds germinate two to three days after sowing, and quickly grow into lush, leafy plants. A month after sowing, it’s important to pinch out the first bud-bearing stem as soon as you see it, which triggers the development of more than a dozen side shoots.
I push my spring-sown broccoli rabe to produce early, while nights are still cool, because hot weather sharpens the flavour of the bud-bearing stems. Should the taste become bitter, I blanch the stems in boiling water for two minutes, then cool them over ice cubes to preserve their bright colour. The spring rabe harvest goes on for a month, after which I either pull up the plants or let a few bloom for the benefit of bees and other beneficials. Good varieties include ‘Sorrento’ and ’60-Day Raab’. I store the leftover seeds so I can start a few plants in summer to harvest in the fall.
For as long as I can remember, gardeners have been growing broccoli varieties like ‘DeCicco’ and ‘Italian Sprouting’, known for their ability to produce a slew of slender side shoots after the primary head is cut. Updated sprouting broccoli varieties such as ‘Artwork’, which won an All-America Selections Award in 2015, are even more productive and dependable, though as with broccoli rabe, you must pinch out the first bud to coax the plants toward top production.
In recent years, sprouting broccoli strains have been improved by plant breeders who crossed it with Chinese kale, or gailon, creating the botanical subtype Brassica oleracea italica Albogabra Group. We gardeners are not supposed to call these new strains broccolini, because the word has been trademarked on three continents; In the UK, the trademarked word is “Tenderstem”. Perhaps to get around this word problem, the wonderful ‘Apollo’ variety is often called “brokali,” and ‘Aspabroc’ is often called baby broccoli.
My botanical side bristles at the ‘baby’ broccoli name because you’re harvesting the reproductive parts of a mature plant, but whatever. Growing broccolini or baby broccoli calls for wide spacing, because the plants grow into dense bushes more than 18 inches (45cm) high and wide when grown in fertile soil with regular moisture and mulch to keep the soil cool. They are quite vigorous once established, and need daily picking after the bud-bearing stems start reaching for the sky. Start new plants in summer to have a second harvest in the fall.
Many broccoli varieties with purple heads are called sprouting broccoli because they form loose heads comprised of many florets followed by numerous long-stemmed buds, but only the ‘Summer Purple’ variety produces well as a spring-sown crop. The other purple broccolis require vernalization, or exposure to cold winter weather, before they can produce a good crop of buds. For best results, other purple broccoli varieties should be started in late summer and grown through winter for spring harvests.