Easy veg: Calabrese

The familiar ‘supermarket broccoli’ better known as calabrese

Calabrese is surely the most popular veg we buy. It is available all year round and is easy to prepare and cook. Not only that but it is insanely healthy to eat. No wonder we buy it so much. But we usually call it broccoli. So why am I calling it calabrese?

There is a distinction between the two plants even though the names are interchanged. A long time ago, when I was a child, broccoli meant what I prefer to call ‘sprouting broccoli’. This is a very seasonal crop, with purple or, more rarely, white spears that are ready to pick in spring, usually in March and April. It is one of the most delicious and anticipated of all spring vegetables but it has one big problem – it is in the ground for a long time and the plants are BIG. It is traditionally sown around now and the plants get to more than 60cm (2ft) wide and high and you do not get a harvest until 10 months after sowing. The plants need winter cold to trigger them to flower and produce the crop we harvest. Just to add a little complication, there is a ‘Summer Purple’ variety that crops the same summer as sowing but it is still a large plant. Modern kinds are more compact and most have larger main heads but they still take up a lot of room.

A modern purple-sprouting broccoli with a large central head and developing side shoots to pick later

All broccolis were developed in the Mediterranean area but calabrese comes from – can you guess? Yes, from Calabria, in the south of Italy. Because of this it is not as hardy as the traditional sprouting broccoli and it will not withstand our cold winters. As such it is usually sown from March (under cover) till July, and it matures very quickly, usually in three to four months. So by sowing a few seeds every month you can enjoy your own calabrese from July to October.

The seeds can be sown in pots on the windowsill and then transplanted into cell trays to plant out when they have three or four leaves. These are compact plants and can be set out about 30cm (12in) apart. They grow best in full sun in rich soil but they are fine in clay soils, like all their relatives: cabbage and kale – called brassicas. They should not be neglected because they grow fast and they benefit from watering and feeding – a scattering of chicken pellets of fish, blood and bone is fine a week or so after planting out. If you wish, you can grow these in patio pots filled with multipurpose compost and given regular weekly feeds.

When the main head is mature you simply cut it off and enjoy but leave the plant to grow a number of smaller heads, ready a week or so later. Then the plants are discarded.

Like all brassicas, there are a few issues you may encounter. They are prone to a number of problems. In old gardens, where crops have been grown before, there may be clubroot disease in the soil, but this may be something you never encounter at all. More common is the fluttering attentions of cabbage-white butterflies. You need to check your plants every few days and remove the eggs or pick of the caterpillars or they will ruin the plants. Alternatively grow them under mesh or fine netting held above the plants.

This is an ideal time to buy and plant calabrese seedlings, sow some yourself or sow sprouting broccoli. It is also time to sow kale for winter greens. Kale is easy to grow and is hardy. Just a few plants will provide useful vitamins and minerals in autumn and there are lots of kinds. Frilly, curly kale is the most popular and is available as green and purple-leaved kinds as well as the up-and-coming ‘Cavalo Nero’ with narrow, dark green leaves.

Curly Kale

Other jobs this week

Keep a watch for black spot on roses. Buy a ready-to-use fungicide and spray as soon as you see the telltale black spots

If the foliage of daffodils is starting to turn yellow it is safe to cut it off, in borders and in grass

Plant up summer patio pots with bedding plants. Use multipurpose compost and add controlled-release fertiliser to feed the plants

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