It's long been one of our most popular and versatile vegetables but now some varieties have been developed for all-year cropping and others suitable for small gardens are coming on stream.
Not so many years ago, you'd find only purple sprouting broccoli in large vegetable gardens and allotments. It needs top quality soil and commandeers more space than most gardeners can afford.
Not only that, but traditional purple sprouting broccoli has to survive a harsh Scottish winter, so has no chance in the icy north-east. Living at 200 metres in the Borders, I'm in with a chance when I use a polytunnel or fleece.
Even so, some winters defeat me, but the delicate, sweet flavour of these spring delights are worth the gamble.
Broccoli plants are always tall – between 60cm or even 90cm – so it's no surprise that they take up a lot of space, often with 60cm between the plants and 75cm between rows. They crop well, so three or four plants will do most families. Given their size, broccoli needs ground that's been well manured the previous autumn or had good compost dug in just before planting.
Supermarket shelves are always well stacked with broccoli, but these florets don't keep well. For perfect flavour, they should be consumed within an hour of picking, so growing your own is the answer and you can now enjoy your own harvest for most of the year.
Exactly when we sow seed, outside or in trays, varies throughout the country, but it's usually within the next six weeks. This applies to most broccoli varieties, regardless of when we harvest them.
Like most vegetables, they are programmed to mature at different rates. (First Early, Second Early and Maincrop potatoes should be planted at the same time, for example. "Early" refers to when you harvest them, not when you plant them.)
Good, old-fashioned purple sprouting broccoli produces a fine crop from the previous year's sowing, usually during May and June, perhaps a little earlier in warmer spots.
You can push the clock back by trying early harvesting the Rudolph variety, which you can enjoy from February. It's reputedly ready before Christmas in the south of England, but I'm always thrilled to enjoy my first tasting by mid to late February. The treat continues unhampered until "purple sprouting" is ready.
You can harvest broccoli throughout the summer and autumn as well, a real bonus for people who can't nurse their plants through the winter. Try sowing summer purple now. The seed packet recommends sowing right up to June, with a harvest as late as November. Not here. The sun weakens in Scotland much earlier than that, so these broccolis must put on most of their growth by the end of August. They have to be ready for cropping before the first winter frosts turn the tasty florets to mush.
Another interesting new summer broccoli is Brokali Apollo. This F1 is a cross between calabrese and Chinese broccoli, kalian.
It should be treated like summer purple and reputedly takes 70-80 days to mature – a little longer here, I'd guess.
I've saved the most interesting new variety, Spike, until last. Not only is it a speedy grower, like Brokali, but it needs much less space.
This is perfect for a small garden as you space plants 30cm apart, rather than the usual 45-60cm.
Some even suggest 22cm spacing but in my experience 30cm gets a good result.
I plant in blocks and am assured a good autumn harvest over several weeks. As an added bonus, the main heads mature at different rates. The side shoots are almost as prolific as other varieties. I'm even trying a February sowing in the tunnel this year to compare harvesting time with similar calabrese and cauliflower plantings.
Annual plants grow best in well-structured soil which is midway between heavy clay and thin, gritty particles. Good soil is filled with tiny air pores – so small you can't see them.
These pores provide air and moisture for growing roots, but also let surplus water drain away. When roots cannot move freely through the soil, they become thick and contorted, the growing tip sometimes dies. The roots exude a chemical instructing the rest of the plant to stop growing and, as a result, you end up with a stunted, distorted plant.
But because, like every member of the brassica family, broccoli is tall, it needs much firmer ground than most plants. This keeps it growing upright and prevents roots being damaged when the plant is buffeted by the wind. In an exposed, windy site, you may even have to stake your plants by tying them to a stout stick. Before planting, dig over and rake the ground, incorporating compost, and shuffle across the bed to firm up evenly, then plant at the recommended spacing.
Broccoli roots are larger and tougher than those of most other vegetable plants, so thrive in firm, but not compacted, soil.
Contextual targeting label: