Broccoli is an easy-to-grow vegetable which, ounce for ounce, provides more Vitamin C than orange juice and nearly as much calcium as milk. It also contains compounds that act in many ways to build strong health and to prevent cancer.
Broccoli, like many of the most nutritious and delicious plants in our garden, belongs to the mustard family, officially known as the brassicacea. Besides broccoli and its close relatives, this family also includes turnips, rutabagas, mustards, radishes, rape (the plant which provides canola oil) and a wide variety of oriental greens. The most interesting and familiar species in this family is Brassica oleracea which includes broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cauliflower, kale and collards.
Although these vegetables look quite different, they are really closely-related plants. Their stems, leaves or flowers have been modified by growers to produce storage organs which are the parts we like to eat. In cabbage, it is the terminal bud and surrounding leaves, while in Brussels sprouts, we eat the axillary buds with smaller leaves wrapped around them. Kohlrabi's stem is swollen into a solid vegetable the size of a tennis ball, while culinary broccoli and cauliflower are just very large flower buds. It's not surprising then that broccoli stems and leaves, as well as the buds are edible. In fact, as full of vitamins and minerals as the broccoli florets are, the leaves contain five times as much Vitamin A and ounce for ounce, twice as much calcium as milk.
The buds, the stems and the leaves are also good sources of beta-carotene, iron, phosphorus, potassium and fiber. Other components of broccoli and its relatives have been shown to help prevent cancer in humans. These indoles, monoterpenes, plant sterols and tannins protect against cancer in a variety of ways. Some are antioxidants and others promote our body's production of the enzymes that detoxify carcinogens, or facilitate enzyme activity. Tests at Johns Hopkins University showed that broccoli was better at inducing these beneficial enzymes than any other vegetable, except green onions. The variety Saga was the most effective enzyme-stimulator and tolerates summer heat as well.
Since it's as easy to grow as it is delicious, broccoli's a good place to start a relationship with the cabbage family. Although they prefer cooler weather, I've found that broccoli (or cabbage or Brussels sprouts) seedlings can be set out in the garden almost anytime from April into July.
Broccoli and its relatives need lots of sun and fertile soil, with plenty of compost to provide an even supply of moisture and nutrients. Five to six inch tall seedlings, set out this Memorial Day weekend, will begin producing heads in about two months and will keep on producing until the heavy freezes of late October or November. Over the next two months, broccoli seeds can also be sown (in flats or directly in the garden) for a bountiful fall harvest.
Just like many summer flowers, once the central broccoli bud is cut, the plant sends out new buds along its stem. As long as those are cut, the plant will keep producing more. The heads on the side shoots are smaller of course than the main one. For maximum production, cut the main head high up on the stem, when it is about three inches in diameter. Keep cutting the developing buds before they begin to bloom. Left long enough, they will open to the yellow, cross-shaped flowers typical of the mustard family, and production will slow down. "Emperor" "Green Valiant," and "Jaguar" are especially good varieties for a five-month, side-shoot harvest.
Wildlife, especially woodchucks and the larva of the white cabbage moth like to eat broccoli, too. The little worm is easy to squish, however. It's dark green manure pellets are more visible than its broccoli-colored body. Look for the larva on the leaf midribs about one week after you first see the moths. I wish I could say it is as easy to get rid of woodchucks. Good fences help.
Fresh from the garden, broccoli is a very delicious and economical way to protect your health.
Plant some soon.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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