Grow easy-peasy calabrese

These little green ‘trees’ are a breeze to grow in the garden, adding delicious homegrown greens to mealtimes

Calabrese in a trug

by Liz Potter |

Dark green, iron-rich and seriously tasty, calabrese and sprouting broccoli must be some of the best-loved vegetables offered at mealtimes. Yet despite their popularity and straight-forward growth, very few of us know the real name of what we’re eating...

Calabrese is the vegetable most of us call ‘broccoli’, with a chunky green domed head above a single thick stem. A natural sprinter, it can be ready to harvest in as little as three months from a spring sowing, with the bonus of further sideshoots after the main head has been cut.

Sprouting broccoli, traditionally the tortoise of the duo, produces masses of small, succulent spears on tall hardy plants the winter or spring after sowing, conjuring precious January to April harvests when other garden pickings are distinctly thin on the ground. Most are a handsome purple leading to its common name of purple sprouting broccoli, but there are white cultivars too.

Recent breeding work has led to a third group of ‘tenderstem’ cultivars sown in spring and cropped late summer to early autumn, such as ‘Inspiration’ F1 and ‘Calabrini’ F1.

Calabrese and sprouting broccoli are both heavy feeders so give them a sunny site on ground that’s been improved with lots of well-rotted compost or manure. As well as improving fertility, this helps with soil structure, ensuring it drains well and holds onto moisture during dry spells.

You can sow calabrese and sprouting broccoli direct into a prepared bed once the soil has warmed in spring (usually from April). Thin the calabrese to its final 30-45cm (12-18in) spacing, and transplant the sprouting broccoli to their final beds at a wider 60cm (2ft) spacing in July. However, sowing under cover in a coldframe, greenhouse or windowsill is the path to least heartbreak from marauding pigeons, slugs and snails. It also lets you be more precise with plant numbers, especially if you sow into modules. Sprouting broccoli takes up lots of space for a long time but when they finally crop they do so abundantly. As a result, a few plants are enough for most families (we grow six for our family of four, sowing in late April and planting out in early July).

Calabrese requires less space and time, but as they tend to mature all in a rush it again pays to sow in small groups, then to repeat this in several batches, starting as early as February and continuing to May.

Planting out calabrese
Planting out calabrese

Planting out

Calabrese and sprouting broccoli prefer a firm soil, so even if you haven’t switched to no-dig growing, try not to turn over the ground just before planting. Be sure to plant deeply, firming the seedlings in well. If your ground isn’t the most fertile give plants a boost with a general fertiliser such as comfrey or pelleted poultry manure. You can also maximise your garden space by sowing a quick catch crop such as radish or rocket between the newly planted rows. Finish by covering with a fine insect mesh to protect against brassica pests (see Troubleshooter). Sprouting broccoli grows tall and will need individual stakes as support against squally winter winds. Once the summer and autumn pests such as cabbage white butterflies are gone you can remove the mesh, just keep it close to hand in case pigeons start to show interest.

Calabrese heads swell rapidly in the final week but leave them too long and you’ll be greeted by a sea of yellow flowers. Heat makes the heads mature quickly and it’s particularly important to keep plants well watered to stop them becoming stressed and rushing to flower. You can cut the head and immediately replant with a different crop, but if you harvest the main dome with a short length of stem, your plant will go on to produce plenty of small sideshoots over the following months. ‘Marathon’ is particularly good at this.

Sprouting broccoli rarely needs extra water at harvest time but be sure to pick shoots as soon as they’re ready to prolong the harvest as much as possible.

Calabrese sown in modules
Calabrese sown in modules


Calabrese and sprouting broccoli can be started off in pots or trays now and planted out once they reach 10cm (4in). You can also sow them direct into a prepared bed once the soil has warmed in a few weeks’ time, but seedlings in the ground are more susceptible to pigeons, slugs and snails.

1. Sow seeds in pairs. Fill a modular tray with peat-free multipurpose compost. Gently firm. Sow two seeds per module. **

2. Protect from frost. Water and place in a coldframe or cool greenhouse. Cover with fleece or bring into the house if there’s a cold snap. If both seeds germinate, thin to a single seedling.

3. Plant them out. When plants are about 10cm (4in) tall, plant out firmly and deeply. Plant calabrese 45cm (18in) apart; plant sprouting broccoli 60cm (2ft) apart. Or, grow in pots.

Crushed broccoli with pasta
Crushed broccoli with pasta


Calabrese comes from Calabria in Italy, and it makes a fabulous pasta dish. While barely steamed or briefly sautéed broccoli is popular, cooking them a little longer before crushing with some gutsy flavours results in a beautiful pasta sauce. Serves 4.

You will need: • 1 tbsp olive oil • 2 garlic cloves, finely sliced • 1 tin of anchovy fillets • 1 head of broccoli (calabrese) cut into small florets • 300g (10oz) pasta, such as penne or fusilli • 1 large handful of parmesan cheese, grated • Juice half a lemon

  1. Heat oil in a wok or large-lidded frying pan. Fry garlic and anchovies for a minute or two, ensuring the garlic doesn’t burn. Add broccoli, fry briefly then add two tablespoons of water and put on the lid.
  1. Cook 5-10 mins to soften broccoli. Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pan of boiling water until al dente.
  1. Lightly mash broccoli florets. Add the pasta, a splash of its cooking liquid, parmesan and lemon juice.
  1. Stir thoroughly to allow parmesan to melt, adding further pasta cooking water (if needed) to loosen the sauce. Eat immediately.
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