Hero of the Month: Broccoli

April further helps to introduce the new season and we’re a step closer to the fresh change we all need. Our bodies, and minds more so, now crave all things autumnal and for the patch it is the first, real opportunity to get intimate with cool season crops. 

This month we shack up with an old favourite, Broccoli - of the brassica family - a variety that is always on our planting agenda come April. Of the heading brassicas - that include cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts - Broccoli is the most accessible to grow. Add to that, it is the only one that regenerates a number of times, allowing you a prolonged harvesting period. You shouldn’t need any more reason to give it a shot. 

But don’t now fall into a false sense of security, because despite the advantages broccoli has over its brassica counterparts, it is still a favoured target of the white cabbage moth. And that is a battle all broccoli growers inevitably will have the face.

The level of warfare with the white cabbage moth is generally determined by what variety of broccoli you choose to grow. Larger heading varieties, known as Calabrese broccoli, require a longer growing and maintenance period than sprouting varieties, or broccolini. This gives the caterpillar a larger window of opportunity to strike - and more cover to hide - so bare that in mind when selecting your variety.

April can still throw up a few surprises in the weather so it’s best to propagate seeds in individual pots that are stored on a tray. Early on it’s important to be mobile and have the ability to run your seedlings away from any late heat waves. If they strike, move your tray indoors to a cooler place. Otherwise the routine should be: outdoors during the days, indoors at night.

Once planted, water seeds twice daily - in short, sharp bursts - until germination occurs. As the seedling begin to mature in the pots, water daily for the first month, and then get set for a transplant into the patch. At this point timing is everything; avoid hot, sunny planting days and try not to plant before a prolonged wet slog is predicted. A wet garden at this time of the year is a highly active one for snails and slugs that will favour new arrivals. 

Broccoli are one of the most nitrogen hungry crops out there, so dig through plenty of compost and slow release organic fertiliser into the patch prior to planting. If possible plant them where your summer beans previously grew, as they would have fixed the soil with a reserve of nitrogen which, ready for use by your broccoli. Ensure the patch is free draining.

The most important measure in limiting the damage of the white cabbage moth is a preventative one, and it is highly recommended to net your patches once the seedlings are planted. Denying the moths access to the patch denies them the opportunity to lay their larvae, and that means no green, hungry caterpillars.  

In comparison to in-ground patches, potted plants have the habit of drying out all too quickly and so if growing in pots water every second day in the absence of rainfall. Otherwise, 2-3 times a week will suffice. As always, make sure to water first thing in the morning to keep night trawling pests - always in search of moisture - away from the patch. 

Mulching the patch once the broccoli are in. This will help insult the coolness in the soil, and an even soil temperature is a bonus for any plant. Use pulverised pea straw, lucerne or sugar cane and mulch to a depth of between 2-3cms.

Because of their appetite for nutrition, get into the habit of feeding your plants every fortnight with an application of liquid seaweed fertiliser. Broccoli often go to flower when they are stressed - either through lack of water or nutrition - so this practice should help develop a strong, large head. And should see the first peep of it after 2 months of growth.

Once you have deemed it large enough for the kitchen table, cut it off down the stem to the first junction of leaves, and then await the next batch. The first head is always the largest and the successive harvests will more likely resemble broccolini - known as florets. But it is still possible to gather 3-4 sets of florets over a 2-3 months period before you get nothing more than pretty yellow flowers.

By that stage, the caterpillars, snail, slugs and UFP (Unidentified Flying Pests) have more than likely overrun the plant…but thankfully, they’re too late. And your body and patch is more than likely ready for another change in season. 

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