Perfect broccoli

Hard to find plants can be easily started from seed

The ideal broccoli for a kitchen garden probably would behave like the fabled Hydra: For every head you cut off, two would grow back. Luckily, nature has already created broccoli that performs much that way. Unlike the modern hybrids you see in supermarkets, antique Italian varieties called sprouting broccoli develop small heads that mature at varying rates. That means a much longer harvest ― six to eight weeks ― of flavorful crops.

Italian green sprouting or Calabrese broccoli is the most commonly grown heirloom type. It develops a small main head followed by numerous side shoots. 'Di Cicco' and 'Green Comet' are two favorites. Spigariello broccoli doesn't develop a central head, just lots of small buds and edible leaves. Use this versatile green raw in salads, in stir-fry dishes, or as a cooked vegetable.

Broccoli raab, like spigariello, has no head but lots of buds. All its edible parts ― buds, stems, leaves ― have a peppery edge reminiscent of turnip. Cook it the way the Italians do: Blanch briefly in boiling water, then sauté in olive oil with plenty of garlic. Nurseries seldom sell these as plants, but you can easily start them from seed.

What it needs

Sun. Broccoli needs full sun to develop, even in desert climates.

Fertile soil. Amend soil with compost or well-rotted manure to ensure a long harvest.

Proper timing. Plants of broccoli raab and its Italian cousins tend to bolt ― go to flower ― in warm temperatures; time your planting so crops will mature during cool weather. In most mild-winter climates, sow seeds now for fall harvest; in Sunset climate zones 11-13 and 18 and 19, wait until September. In cold-winter areas, wait until the ground thaws next spring.

Adequate spacing. Sow seeds 2 to 4 inches apart in rows 18 to 24 inches apart or as directed on the seed packet.

Moist soil. Keep soil evenly moist until seeds germinate; water regularly thereafter. To prevent dry soil, spread mulch around plants.

Overhead protection. To guard against aphids, cabbageworms, flea beetles, and other pests, lay floating row covers directly over seeded crops or plants. Or support the fabric with stakes or hoops. Secure edges with 2-by-4s or mound soil over them.

SOURCES

Botanical Interests ( www.botanicalinterests.com or 800/486-2647)

Nichols Garden Nursery ( www.nicholsgardennursery.com or 800/422-3985)

Territorial Seed Company ( www.territorial-seed.com or 800/626-0866)

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