Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.
Mention how delicious broccoli grown in your garden tastes, and you’re likely to be stared at as if you’ve lost your mind. At the mere thought of the deep green vegetable, most people shudder, remembering overcooked, limp, bitter servings at their school cafeteria.
But a head harvested from the sweet soil of your backyard is a whole different meal, a nutty, tender flavor so delightful you’ll crave more. Fresh homegrown broccoli is so tasty, in fact, that it can change the minds of our most picky eaters: our children.
Just ask Robyn Bond, a Colorado Master Gardener in Larimer County. She gardens on a small patch of yard in the suburbs, squeezing in as many plants as possible in the pocket-sized garden. Though her grandson, Travis, helped her sow spinach and chard seeds last spring, he drew the line when it came to eating.
“He says his brain tells him not to eat anything green,” said Robyn. Since Travis and his twin brother Gunner (who eats green things but not broccoli) weren’t interested, Robyn popped in three broccoli seedlings, just enough for one person to enjoy.
But Travis became curious about the heads that developed on the plants, and summoned the courage to ignore his brain’s advice and try this green thing. “I told him he could cut as much as he wanted for his dinner,” said Robyn, not realizing that this meant Travis would cut all three plants’ worth of broccoli. Finding them delicious, in a few days he returned, and helped himself to the side shoots as well.
In fact, so enamored of the tender, delicious broccoli had Travis become that he decided to share his joy with others, particularly in the produce department of the grocery store. There the dark haired lad took his stand, stopping shoppers before they could slide a few heads into their plastic bags.
Gazing up at people, his blue eyes sincere, he uttered “Don’t buy this stuff they make here, grow it instead, like nana does.” You see, Travis, like other children, has yet to discover exactly where food comes from, believing that grocers made the broccoli they sold.
“The store staff got a kick out of it, they’ve forgiven me and I’m allowed back in the store,” Robyn assured me. “They know he will now eat broccoli.”
Gardeners need more Travises in the world, and more nanas like Robyn to teach them the joy of growing food. One day they’ll take the hand of a child to teach them the ways of soil and sunlight, or grow into young farmers bringing produce to neighborhood markets.
In the meantime, plant some broccoli in your patch this year. It’s easy to grow, but keep in mind that the secret to sweet, not bitter, broccoli is consistent water and rapid growth. It’s a cool season crop, so plant seedlings now for a spring harvest. Pick a sunny location and amend the soil with a bit of plant-based compost, and give the young seedlings a shot of starter fertilizer to get them growing.
Pay careful attention to watering, making sure the plant doesn’t dry out – this is what causes it to bitter. Right now we’re dry; our rainfall isn’t enough to moisturize the leaves, much less irrigate the roots. So check your plant daily and give it a drink if the top of the soil feels dry.
Fertilize the plants at three weeks and five weeks, to keep their growth rapid.
Broccoli heads are actually a cluster of immature flower buds, harvested before the flowers open. Monitor your heads as they size up; the plant tag will give an indication of the size of an ideal head. Pick the broccoli before any yellow begins to show, cutting the stem five inches below the head. Let the plant keep growing, and you’ll enjoy a second crop of side shoots as well.