Sprouting Broccoli

Sure, you can sprout broccoli seeds for salads and sandwiches.  They are better than alfalfa sprouts.  But the Sprouting Broccoli we're talking about here is a category of broccoli that differs from the kind that form big heads sometimes referred to Calabrese Broccoli.  Sprouting Broccoli is popular in Great Britain.  It is usually sown in early summer to a sizable plant, overwintered and then the multitude of early little buds clusters and tender stems are harvested for a spring treat.  There are purple and white sprouting kinds.  The less commonly grown white one is more related to cauliflower.  Here on Long Island, it is almost impossible to get the plants through our harsh winter.  There are some new developments coming from European breeders who have managed to develop a Sprouting Broccolithat does not need the winter chill or vernalization in order to develope clusters of tasty sprouts.  In that respect, it is much like the conventional broccoli that produces the crop during the same growing season it's seeds are sown in.

Here is one of the newer Sprouting Broccoli which produces in 50 days or so.

Here is one of the newer Sprouting Broccoli which produces in 50 days or so.

Have you heard of Broccolini or Asparagus Broccoli?  Have you seen it in a gourmet market?  Have you grown it for your customers? Definitely Not. Broccolini was developed by Sakata Seed Company, the seed is produced under contract by a Thailand Company and in the U.S. it can only be grown by a California Packing Company that has an exclusive contract. Broccolini is a hybrid between a cultivar of Gai Lon (or Kailan), a white flowered brassica sometimes known as Chinese Kale (Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra) and a selection of standard broccoli. We've been growing those Gai Lon cultivars available looking for tender, brittle stems and a mild, sweet flavor. A few years ago we interplanted our selections of Gai Lon with a rather loose headed broccoli selection and hope that the bees will help to cross the two. We also hand pollinated using "bee sticks" (dead bees glued onto wood coffee stirrers) since they are more effective than Q-tips or paint brushes in transferring pollen.  A bit tedious yet effective.

We grew some of the seed saved from that experiment this past year.  It produced what looks similar to the Gai Lon parent complete with the white flowers one would also expect of Gai Lon.  Maybe we'll save the seed from this hybrid (if it is a cross) and try next year to see what happens.

Saving Broccoli Seed

Since broccoli is insect pollinated, the crop has to be isolated from most of the other common brassicas that may be in flower.  Pollinating insects do get around (they can travel and move pollen around over many hundreds, perhaps thousands of feet) and if other members of the broccoli species are in flower at the same time, they will be crossed.  Cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, some kinds of kale, brussels sprouts are some members of the Brassica oleracea species. Breeders have crossed broccoli with cauliflower with some interesting and marketable developments, but for the most part you will probably want to grow only one of the Brassicas at a time, and only one cultivar if you want to maintain seed purity.

Once broccoli starts to flower, it bolts quickly and attracts many kinds of insect pollinators. We get an equal number of bumble bee and honey bees working the flowers as well as flies and cabbage butterflies.  Rarely, broccoli can self-pollinate but mostly it doesn't. Sometimes pollination is hit or miss and seed production can be erratic. Pollen will generally have to be transferred among several plants. This self-incompatibility may help to facilitate chance hybrids that show greater vigor.

Pollinated flowers develop siliques or mustard type seedpods on elongating flower stalks. When most of the pods enlarge with seeds and turn brown pull up the plant, roots and all, and allow the plant to dry in a well ventilated area until it's pods are brittle. Cut off the roots and the thrash the stalks (roll the seed pods back and forth through your hands until the sides of the pods break free and seed is released. Use a strainer or screen to separate seed from pod remains. Finally, gently blow away fine debris with a fan to leave the clean seed behind. I had some difficulty planting the OSU broccoli early enough to obtain the best quality seed.  Because of the density of the pods on a single plant and the fact that seeds develop on one broccoli plant over an extended period of time, damp, wet weather can play havoc with the seeds that mature early on as you wait for the later pods to ripen.  Seed harvesting in the wetter part of late summer is just not conducive to producing quality clean seed with high germination.   Fortunately, this year the seed crop is coming along just fine and hopefully will ripen in the field before the late summer damp weather.  For small-scale seed production, good quality broccoli seed should be fairly easy to produce on the farm but dry conditions as the seed ripens in the pods are really important. I was hoping to put up a polyhouse for drying the seed crop out during damp weather but that remains a task for the future.  When I was in the seed business I always hot water treated my brassica seed before packing; 122° F for 25 minutes, cooled and quickly blown dry (without heat on screens) just to make sure that I wasn't going to distribute any seed-borne fungus diseases. I never do that for my own seed and I haven't had any major disease problems. So you decide.

For brassica seed (that includes broccoli, turnip, collards and many other vegetables) the dry pods are crushed to release their seed and then cleaned.  In small batches which is what we work with at the farm, the seeds get separated with assorted strainers and screens.  The work of separating the seed from chaff at the end of the process requires a fan or air compressor (or in this case lung power).

OSU Broccoli

A Broccoli for Organic Systems

One of my favorite projects in our work with the Organic Seed Partnership at Flanders Bay Farm involves the continued selection of an open-pollinated broccoli for organic systems.  After three years of growing broccoli selected from a mass cross of varieties made by Jim Myers, who is a professor of plant breeding at Oregon State University, we may have finally gotten it right!  Broccoli is not what one usually considers an organic sustainable crop for a number of reasons but this may change as the OSU Broccoli becomes progressively more adapted to our Long Island soils, climate and cultural practices.  One of the most interesting aspects of this broccoli is it's resistance to disease and insect pests which makes it ideal for organic farms and gardens.  In the three years of growing this broccoli we haven't had to use any kinds of pest or disease controls.

This years crop shows some of the variation in the population.  It remains variable in it's maturity, something that we have not selected out.  We like the idea that one planting will result in a harvest over many weeks.  Perhaps not what corporate farms need, but ideal to the ability of small farms to meet the needs of their farmstand customers. 

We continue to select for the "long neck" trait for ease of harvest.  Also, that vase-like long stem is remarkably tender and sweet for a broccoli.  Most people like the steamed stalk just as much as the florets.

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The smaller plants in this photo and those with small heads will be pulled or rogued before they bloom as part of the selection process.  If I see a head where there is a lack of uniformity in bead (flower buds) or symmetry or it has begun to bloom prematurely, out it comes.  I want uniform small beads on an attractive head.  I also want it to last in the field so I have a longer harvesting window.   Out of 150 plants, we will save seed from less than half.  There is still a lot of diversity in the OSU Broccoli and part of that is by choice,  not concentrating on one trait.  For example, I like the big heads that I've been getting this year (and some have been immense), but those larger heads seem to lose the long tender neck characteristic typical of the smaller flared heads that I really like too.  So, I've let plants with both traits cross.  I also get very early heads in 50 days from setting out plants in early May and I also have plants just beginning to head at 70 days from field planting and I like that ability for an extended harvest.


Here, Zak is working with the initial small planting of the OSU Broccoli in 2005.  Germination was poor and we probably had less that 30 or 40 plants to work with.  As we continue working with the OSU broccoli it just gets better and better.  It seems more tolerant of the high temperatures we get in mid summer, still has remarkable insect resistance and is producing more usable heads and of a larger size.  It is also easier to save the seeds of.  I hear that already our northeast strain of the OSU broccoli differs from the northwest strain which has been selected by organic farmers in Oregon and Washington.