Broccoli for health

Broccoli is best grown as a cool season crop. Planted in autumn it takes around three months to mature, and fortunately for us comes action packed with vitamins and minerals, delivered at the end of winter, just when we need them most.

Broccoli is high in fibre and is a rich source of vitamin C, vitamin A, iron, vitamin K, B-complex vitamins, zinc, phosphorus and folates. It is also rich in phyto-nutrients, which have been found to protect the heart and reduce the risk of cancer.

Just don’t overcook it! Light steaming, stir-frying or microwaving are the best cooking methods to avoid destroying the vitamins and enzymes that give the health benefits.

Broccoli has quite a few health needs of its own that we need to take care of in order to get a bountiful spring harvest that will improve our own health.

Lightly steam, stir fry or microwave to retain broccoli’s nutritional value.

It is a member of the brassica family along with cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and turnip. All of these plants suffer from clubroot. Clubroot is caused by a pathogen (Plasmodiophora brassicae) which infects the roots of brassicas causing them to become swollen and distorted. The top growth becomes yellow and stunted and the plants ultimately die because they can’t take up water and nutrients.

To reduce the risk of clubroot you can grow your plants from seed (since clubroot normally comes in on infected plants), lime the soil, and most importantly, don’t grow brassicas in the same area for at least four years. Mustard also carries clubroot, so don’t use this as a cover crop if you intend to plant brassicas in the same plot.

More of the arch enemies of broccoli are slugs and snails, white cabbage butterfly, aphids and whitefly. As the weather gets colder these become less of a problem, but early in the season protect the plants with snail bait and check the undersides of the leaves, squashing any caterpillars you see.

Cold, wet, winter weather reduces the insect pests, and helps keep the plants well watered – another of broccoli’s must haves – but damp weather increases the chance of powdery mildew, downy mildew, botrytis and bacterial soft rot. Spraying with a copper fungicide every two weeks (weather permitting) throughout the season can help, but the best defence against pests and diseases is to give attention to providing conditions that promote the growth of vigorous, healthy plants.

Broccoli has deep roots, and needs well drained soil, so work the soil to at least spade depth and dig in plenty of organic material. As well as this, dig in a helping of general garden fertiliser prior to planting, since broccoli plants are heavy feeders, and follow up with a side dressing of the same fertiliser every two to three weeks.

The seed is fine, so it is best started in seed trays. If buying seedlings make sure they are healthy, with supple stems and green leaves. Stunted, root-bound seedlings will produce small broccoli heads.

Plant in full sun, and space the seedlings 30cm apart. This may seem a lot of room for tiny seedlings, but they grow into large, tall plants, which won’t do well if they have to compete with one another for light and nutrients. Airflow is also important.

Harvest while the head is still tight and green since it becomes tough and bitter once it flowers.

Plants such as loose leaf lettuces or spinach, which reach maturity quickly, can be grown between the broccoli plants to use the space before they are shaded out.

It can be a little difficult to tell when the broccoli head is ready to harvest. You want it to be as large as possible but still tight and green. The part we eat is a flower head. If left too long the head will burst into yellow blooms, and become tough and bitter.

If you see the buds swelling, or any sign of yellow, harvest immediately.

Use a sharp knife to cut the head off at an angle so that water drains away from the cut. A few weeks later (with most varieties of broccoli) side shoots form around the cut and these too can be harvested.

Now it’s over to you to enjoy your fresh, green, broccoli florets!