My recollections of helping tend the family vegetable gardens while growing up on a small rural farm in North Idaho don’t involve the planting of broccoli. We grew more conventional foods: cabbage, carrots, lettuces, parsnips, peas, beans, corn, tomatoes, etc. However, when Michael and I moved to Interior Alaska near Fairbanks and grew food in the Salcha area beginning in 1973, broccoli became a favored food to grow along with other cool weather crops. Broccoli was ideally suited for the Land of the Midnight Sun with its abundance of daylight in mid-summer and growing season of less than 100 days. All members of the brassica family did particularly well.
Having no electricity for grow lights, we sprouted seeds near the spring equinox on wet paper towels, poking the sprouted seeds directly into six-packs of seedling mix, placing them on white, plastic foam meat trays and sticking them on windowsills. Due to the low level of light, they grew spindly but we transplanted them into larger containers until the ground was warm enough to set outside. Eventually when the greenhouse was built, we moved the seedlings out there and kept them warm with a wood stove at night. Hardening them off for a few days before their final set out sometime in late May, we kept the plants under row cover until all danger of frost was past. Each plant stem was wrapped with a two-inch band of newspaper to prevent damage by cut worms at set out. Our soils were silt-based and required a great deal of organic matter to sustain the prolonged growth so were periodically side dressed with compost and fertilized with fish emulsion throughout the growing season. I often wondered if a bear got a whiff of the fish emulsion, what might happen to the garden. Harvest was completed by the end of August when the first real killing frost could occur. And I do mean killing!
After we left Alaska, we learned new growing techniques. Peter Chan’s “Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way” and his raised-bed system presented us with an idea of how to grow in heavy clay soils and also presented us with the idea of paper tubes to start the seedlings. Alan Chadwick’s biodynamic/French Intensive double-dug beds and ideas from John Jeavons’ Biointensive methods from his Ecology Action of the Mid-peninsula book, ” How to Grow More Vegetables, than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine,” also provided us with more ideas. Actually we visited John Jeavons’ gardens in Willits, CA , back in 1983. Also we traveled across country and visited Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion, ME, that same year. All were quite inspirational, to say the least.
When we moved back to North Idaho in the mid-80’s, we continued our practice of sprouting seeds around the new moon closest to the spring equinox and then transplanted them at the appropriate moon phase into plastic six-packs until they went into individual newspaper tubes. Although gardening was and remains a meditative act for me, the actually making of these tubes solidified that feeling each spring season as their construction takes awareness, appreciation and patience. Newspapers were cut into double strips and wrapped around the appropriate-sized shampoo bottle. The strips were secured with a line of liquid glue prior to setting them out in flats or in deep, wall-paper paste trays. A potting mixture slightly richer than the seedling starter had been sifted together and several tablespoons added into the tube and gently pressed down. The seedling was extracted carefully from its growing medium, the bottom two seed leaves snipped off and then the seedlings were placed into the tubes and soil added. I found they could be planted fairly deep at this point and would not get as spindly.
Michael had built shelves set up with grow lights that could be adjusted by altering the length of chains. If one variety was shorter than another, they could be accommodated with this method. The filled flats were placed under the grow lights, water added carefully around the sides but not directly on the soil thereby absorbed directly into the root zone eliminating soil compaction.
The young starts were rotated often to encourage straight growth, the lights moved to be within one to two inches above their tops until the plants were large enough and it was warm enough to harden them off on the front porch for a few days before setting them under the apple tree.
From their stint under the apple tree, they’d eventually go into Michael’s double-dug beds already enriched with worm compost and leaf mulch. I marked the center line and then dug a hole with my bulb planter on each side, spaced about a foot apart, adding crushed egg shells, nutritional yeast, a cup of compost and mixed well before adding a cup of fish emulsion, and covering with a scoop of top soil. Other amendments might be added as well.
Then when it came time for removing the plants carefully from the tubes, I found myself marveling at the healthy root structures started in this manner. Snipping off the bottom two leaves, I’d individually wrap each stem with a two-inch square of newspaper to prevent cut worm damage and the plants buried half-way down that square. Mike would lay the soaker hose at the center and we’d let the water drip until the starts were well watered. We erected a row cover with heavy wires and remay and kept the plants covered until growing strong on their own.
Daily inspection for insect damage and handpicking off any caterpillars or washing off aphids was a must. At one time, I used the “organic pesticide” Bacillus thuringiensis or BT to control the white cabbage looper moth that flit from plant to plant laying its minuscule eggs. I stopped using BT when I noticed the beneficial wasps that came to attack the cabbage looper caterpillar were exhibiting signs of nerve damage. For me it was an up-close personal look at how beneficial insects react to even allowable insecticides. The daily examination became an even more meditative experience and gave me an eye into what other insect activity took place and how we could adjust the light, irrigating, air circulation, and nutritional additions to assist in the plants’ healthy growth, a relatively easy thing to do with 20-30 plants. The bird traffic in and around the plants increased as well after I stopped using the BT.
As the plants grew, they received fish emulsion and side feedings of compost and Michael removed their bottom leaves for improved air circulation. Good soakings with the soaker hose and overhead waterings done early in the mornings whenever needed gave them a refreshing shower to last through the heat of the day. Our soils in Idaho were clay-based and ate up any organic matter we fed them. Producing copious amounts of compost and incorporating composted horse manures or bringing in llama poop and birch leaves was a must. The birch leaves were turned into the fall soils and allowed to breakdown during the wet and snowy fall, winter, and early spring seasons.
With the first-sown crop, we found that by removing the bottom leaves and pinching the the blossom buds back, and keeping them as cool as possible during the heat of the summer, often was enough to get them through into the cool fall season and we’d get another good crop of side shoots before the killing frosts. I’d also start a second crop around the summer solstice but seeded them directly into prepared tubes. They were grown outdoors, kept as cool as possible and covered with row cover until set out in the garden in late July or early August. Harvest wasn’t as prolific as the first crop but it was tasty, especially after a light touch of frost.
According to Wikipedia, broccoli has been considered since the time of the Roman Empire a uniquely valuable Italian food and was first brought to the US by Italian immigrants. My favorite broccoli plants belong to the Calabrese family with their large heads and thick stalks. The open-pollinated varieties I grew then are largely unavailable now but still the DiCicco and Waltham 29 can be found. I did seed a few hybrids as well, namely Packman, Green Valiant and Green Comet.
Our seedling mix: l part peat moss to 1 part vermiculite and 4 parts potting soil, sifted very fine. The transplanting mix: 1 part peat moss, 2 parts potting soil to 1 part compost, mixed and then sifted through larger mesh. Our garden set-out mixture included 1 tablespoon crushed egg shells, 1 cup compost, 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast and 1 cup of fish emulsion per plant. Throughout the season we’d side-dress with compost or fish emulsion, watering well after each addition.
With such copious amounts of broccoli, my preferred method of preserving was freezing them. This was done in an outdoor kitchen, utilizing a wok over a coleman stove for steaming and then immersing them in ice water before shaking out the excess water and putting into freezer containers. Just about the time when the new spring seed catalogs arrived in mid-winter, I’d take out the few packages of broccoli that were always set aside along with a few packages of frozen peas and beans and make a pasta salad with our very own basil/garlic pesto. Yum!
Extra plants often made it into the floral and herb gardens for we truly loved the bluish-green hue of their leaves and admired their unique vase shape and button bud structures.
Although we’ve not grown it since moving to the Big Island of Hawaii in 2005, nor since moving to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state in 2009, we found even in Hawaii, broccoli grew well in the upcountry and showed up in farmers’ markets. Of course, organic broccoli grows very well locally on the Peninsula with its extended cool spring and fall seasons and is available at farmers’ markets.
Even after all these years, broccoli continues to be a staple veggie for us finding itself added to the morning omelette, as a steamed veggie at dinner, and a valuable addition to pasta salads. Bella broccoli!