Guide To Growing The Perfect Broccoli
One of the most nutritional vegetables around, this sun-loving, cool season vegetable is a superfood powerhouse, filled with fiber, antioxidants and loads of vitamin C. Your mother was right- there is a reason to eat your broccoli!
This stout, flowering, thick-stemmed vegetable is related to cabbage, kale, bok choy and kale. A broccoli head is eaten before it flowers, when it resembles a small tree, but the rest of the vegetable is entirely edible too, you just need to get creative. Broccoli is a moderately long-growing vegetable, but don’t let that deter you! If you give this vegetable the right conditions and time your planting correctly, you can get this plant to produce shoots for weeks even after you’ve harvested the main flowering head.
One of the great things about this vegetable is that you can grow it almost everywhere and we’re going to tell you how.
Let’s dive in and get growing!
1. Planting Broccoli
Broccoli loves the sunshine and needs to be planted in a site that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day. Broccoli is a cool-season plant, so the timing is key to getting your broccoli to produce properly. Broccoli is a cool-season plant, so planning your seed starting around the temperature is key. Depending on when you want to harvest your broccoli, you should either start your broccoli seeds in the late winter or early spring if you want a summer harvest, or in the later summer if you want to harvest in the fall.
Starting your own seeds can be rewarding, but time consuming or space dependent, so if you prefer to pick up seedlings at your local nursery to plant in your garden that is quite ok.
Starting Your Seeds
If you’re doing a spring planting, broccoli can be started indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date or you can sow broccoli seeds outdoors 2 to 3 weeks before your last frost date if your soil is workable enough. If starting indoors, sow seeds 1/4 to 1/2 deep in a high-quality seed-starting mix or peat pellets. You should see the germination of your broccoli seeds in about 4 to 7 days.
For a fall planting, you can direct sow outdoors around 85 to 100 days before the last fall frost date. With broccoli, it’s key to get the vegetable to mature before or after the summer heat, so make sure you plant accordingly, or else your broccoli will have a hard time developing.
You can always start your seeds indoors if you’d like for a summer planting, but just make sure your seeds have enough time to mature and develop before your transplant.
It’s important to harden your plants off before transplanting in your garden, so make sure that you gradually expose your seedlings to the outdoors for a couple hours a day for at least a week during the day. Never leave your seedlings out at night since the potential for frost and frigid temperatures can damage your seedlings.
Where To Grow Broccoli
Broccoli can be grown in Zones 2 to 11. As mentioned above, broccoli loves cool weather, so be mindful when you’re planting your seedlings that takes into account when your broccoli head will flourish and aim for that to be developed during cooler times.
Refer to the growing instructions for your particular variety for your maturing dates.
When To Plant Broccoli
Broccoli does not generally do well in hot weather. While there are more heat-tolerant types being developed on the market, it is still recommended to plant your crops in the early spring, for an early summer crop before the temperature warms up, or planting in the summer for a fall harvest.
Prepping Your Planting Site
Amending your soil before you plant is always a great practice before you plant new plants, and you’ll want to give your vegetables all of the extra nutrients they can get. Adding a top dressing of compost or manure to your garden beds is a good way to insert some extra nutrients in your soil. Just forking in a few inches into your soil will do. Broccoli prefers a neutral to slightly acidic soil for best growing results.
Planting Broccoli Seedlings & Seeds
When your broccoli seedlings are ready to plant- when the seedlings have 4 or 5 true leaves and are around 4 to 6 weeks old- transplant them into your garden at around 12 to 20 inches apart and in holes a bit deeper than the container depth they were in. Broccoli needs a good amount of space to flourish, so make sure you give your broccoli plenty of room to grow to develop a large head.
Space your rows around 3 feet apart and as always, make sure you water well when you plant!
It’s a good practice to protect your young seedlings when you first plant them in the garden. Cloches or row covers are a good idea to protect from wind and hail or rodents and pests until your plants are more established.
If you are directly sowing your seeds, plant around 4 inches apart and then thin to 12 inches once your plants are doing well.
Broccoli In Containers
Broccoli is a container-friendly vegetable to grow if you don’t have enough space in your garden or if you have poor soil conditions, you just need to make sure you have a decent sized container for it to grow. Broccoli can get pretty big, so if you have a 5 gallon or 19-liter container, it’s your best bet to plant one seedling per container. You can plant more than one seedling per container if you have the appropriate space but following those measurements as a guideline for space requirements will help you decide how many you can plant.
One of the things you need to pay attention to if you plant broccoli in containers, is the temperature. Be mindful of where you place your containers and avoid areas in your garden or yard that tend to get hot in the summertime, like right beside a wall with no shade and choose a spot that gets partial shade. Another thing to consider is the color of your containers. Dark or black containers tend to heat up a lot in the sun, so it’s best to avoid a darker coloured container so you don’t burn your plants.
Make sure to water frequently and fertilize with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer when you first plant in your pot, then again when your plants reach around 12 to 15 inches in height and every four weeks after that to ensure good growth.
Due to its superfood qualities, broccoli is a very popular vegetable used to grow microgreens. This method of cultivation produces dense, highly concentrated baby greens that contain high levels of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. While popular with chefs and found at your local farmer’s markets, it’s quite easy to grow your own microgreens at home.
Grab a shallow seed tray and sow a high quality seeding medium to about 1 1/2 to 2 inches deep. Sow seeds generously, crowding to about 1/4 inch apart and then cover very lightly with soil. Just cover the seeds only barely, to the depth of the seed, so they shoot up quickly. Keep the soil warm-at room temperature or just above and once your seeds begin to sprout move them under your grow lights for about 10 hours of light a day.
Microgreens take about 10 to 20 days to grow to the desired size, just after the true leaves start to develop. Harvest your shoots with a sharp knife and save in the fridge for up to 5 to 10 days.
2. How To Grow And Care For Your Broccoli
Broccoli likes a rich, moist, fertile soil in order to grow well, a good amount of sunshine and most importantly- cool weather! The key to a good harvest is providing the right conditions to get the immature flower buds to proliferate and grow large for you to enjoy.
Make sure you water your broccoli regularly as broccoli loves moist soil conditions, but never soggy. So don’t overwater and leave your broccoli plants in a puddle- they will not like it! Overwatering your broccoli will encourage pests and can cause your broccoli to bolt.
It’s best to add a mulch to your plants, which will benefit the water retention in the soil and also help to control weed overgrowth. Using a soaker hose and water at the plant’s base will encourage even water retention and prevent soil erosion.
When a head starts to develop, try your best to not water the head, as this can promote rot.
When you plant your seedlings at the beginning of the growing season, it is recommended to fertilize your broccoli when the plants reach around 6 to 8 inches in height and again at around 12 inches. After that, you can give your plants a nutrient boost every 4 weeks or so. A low-nitrogen fertilizer, fish emulsion or any other type of well- balanced fertilizer is ideal, since you want to encourage flowering of the buds and prevent excessive leaf growth.
As mentioned numerous times earlier- broccoli loves the cold! These plants thrive in temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit (18 to 21 degrees Celsius). Since you’ll be aiming to grow your crop during the early spring and again into the fall, you may want to use row covers to protect your broccoli from colder evenings when the seasons begin to change. It’s an added bonus that row covers will also protect against pests and deer.
If you want to promote an earlier harvest in the spring or a later harvest in the fall, you can utilize polytunnels or mini hoop tunnels to extend your growing season.
Mulching around broccoli plants will help keep soil temperatures lower and provide weed protection. Broccoli roots are quite shallow, so adding mulch will provide some protection.
If you’re experiencing a heat wave and your broccoli plant can potentially bolt due to the temperatures, add some shade cloth to your plants to provide some protection against the heat.
Broccoli plants grow to produce a large, main head at the top of its main stalk and also produce smaller flower buds and florets off of its main stalk, but below the main head. There are a few different ways you can prune broccoli and it will depend on what kind of harvest you want.
If you want numerous smaller, side shoots of the buds, then your best bet is to pinch off the main head about a month or so after you transplanted your seedling. This will promote the growth of several side shoots instead of one large, main flowering head.
Conversely, if you want a large main broccoli head, pinching off all of the side shoots will force all of the plants’ energy to go to producing the main head and not get diverted to producing small off-shoots.
Loose Broccoli Heads
Sometimes broccoli can produce loose, bitter heads that are less than savory to eat and most commonly this is caused by too much heat. Remember, broccoli loves cooler temperatures and if you live in an area that experiences a spike in temperature, or if you planted your broccoli too late or in a spot that gets too warm, your broccoli could flower or bolt. And then you have bitter, flavorless broccoli! How sad.
But what if it’s not the heat? Well, then it could be too much nitrogen in the soil as too much of this nutrient can cause swift growth of the head of the broccoli. Make sure you are mindful of the fertilizer you are using to avoid this problem in the first place and if it’s not your fertilizer, it might be a good idea to get your soil tested to see if there are any other factors causing the growth problem.
3. Broccoli Heirloom Varieties
Broccoli is a member of the mustard or Brassicaceae family, commonly known as the group of cruciferous vegetables. These Brassica-type plants are a large group of vegetables whose members include cabbage, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi, kai-lan and Brussel sprouts. These vegetables are native to western and southern Europe, thriving in cooler and harsher growing conditions.
Many hybrid types have been developed over the years, but nothing beats the tried and true flavors of the classic heirloom varieties. The following are the common types of broccoli.
Calabrese Broccoli: This is the most familiar type of broccoli, with large green or bluish-green heads and thick stalks. This variety is named after the Calabria region in Italy.
Sprouting Broccoli: As the name suggests, this type of broccoli is generally smaller with many heads, which can range in size and color. This type of broccoli reaches maturity in roughly 70 to 100 days.
Early Season Broccoli: These broccoli types can be good to harvest in less than 60 days and are ideal if you want a fast crop. They are typically more tender in taste and tend to develop smaller main heads.
Mid-Season Broccoli: Mid-season broccoli types take around 70-80 days to mature and do well in a bit warmer temperature. But not too warm! variety is typically on the larger size, around 4 to 8 inches, since it has a longer growing season than the Early Season Broccoli types.
Romanesco: This visually appealing, usually pale green in color broccoli produces unique spiral-like florets. Very sensitive to heat and has a bit of a nutty flavor. Somewhere between a broccoli and a cauliflower, this vegetable is a popular heirloom vegetable to grow.
Below are some heirloom varieties that would be a welcome addition to your garden:
Calabrese Green Sprouting Broccoli: This broccoli is an Italian heirloom variety and produces many side shoots, so perfect if you want a continuing harvest throughout the season. Matures in around 90 days.
Early Purple Sprouting Broccoli: This is a fast producing, purple bud variety that matures in as little as 60 days. This type is suitable for warmer temperatures.
Waltham 29: A dark, bluish-green coloured broccoli that is also popular for growing microgreens. This type matures in around 50 to 70 days.
Di Ciccio: Another Italian heirloom variety, this is a strong tasting emerald-green broccoli that is great at producing side shoots and matures in about 70 days to a size of 3 to 5 inches wide.
Yod Fah Chinese Broccoli: This sprouting-style broccoli matures in about 55 days and is tender and sweet. The stalks and leaves are sweet and delicious, so no part of this vegetable goes to waste.
Romanesco Italia Cauliflower: This apple-green broccoli matures in about 75 to 95 days
4. Common Insects & Ailments
As with most plants, there are many pests and insects you must contend with to keep your broccoli healthy and infection-free. With a little planning and proper maintenance, you can minimize the damage and in the best case, avoid any issues entirely.
The larvae of moths and butterflies, these pests feed on the foliage of plants and if not treated properly can eat up your plants! If you notice gray or white moths flying around your broccoli take heed and stop them from laying their eggs in the first place. Handpicking the eggs or spraying with insecticides containing Bacillus thuringiensis or spinosad every 1 to 2 weeks can help control the outbreak. Insect barrier or row covers can help to deter them and should be placed almost immediately after planting.
Aphids are tiny insects that will feed on the undersides of broccoli leaves, causing them to become discolored and wrinkled.
Neem oil or other horticultural oils (make sure you read the packaging before applying the oil to your tulips) is an effective method at getting rid of aphids. You could also apply a mixture of water and a couple drops of dish soap to a cloth or spray bottle and gently wipe or spray the infected area (apply every 2-3 days for a couple of weeks for best results). Sometimes simply spraying the aphids with cold water will dislodge them and prevent them from returning. Diatomaceous earth, an organic powdery compound, can be used successfully against an aphid infestation by simply sprinkling it over the plants.
Beneficial insects will compete with aphids and keep their population at bay, so it might not be a bad idea to plant a beneficial pollinator flower mixture in the area to help deter these pests if they are a recurring issue.
Flea beetles are tiny insects that leave holes in the foliage of broccoli plants and if you’re not proactive, these pests can kill your seedlings and damage the harvest from your crop. It is a good idea to use an insecticide and follow the directions on the label. You do not want these insects! Flea beetles are pesky and can overwinter in the soil, so cleaning up your beds at the end of every season is good practice at preventing these insects from coming back year after year.
Cutworms will eat your newly planted seedlings. It’s a good idea to plant strong seedlings instead of sowing seeds directly and if the problems persist, protect the stem of your broccoli by wrapping it (very delicately!) with cardboard or cloth, so they can’t get to the stem and cut it down. If problems persist, you may have to treat with an insecticidal spray.
Common Broccoli Diseases
Common issues when growing broccoli include bacterial and fungal diseases. A number of leaf spot diseases infect broccoli plants, and it is a good practice to rotate your brassica crops every year. To avoid fungal growth, always monitor your watering schedule and make sure you are not overwatering your plants, as fungus thrives in damp, wet conditions. Proper spacing when planting will help promote good air flow and circulation, and always water the base of the plant, avoiding the leaves or head of the broccoli to keep them as dry.
If you go to check on your broccoli and notice a white, powdery-like, dusty-looking substance on your broccoli leaves you most likely have a case of powdery mildew. This type of fungus will attack the leaves first and gradually make its way to the stems and then the head. To avoid this, you must make sure your plants are getting enough sunlight, good air circulation (prune some leaves if necessary) and keep the plants as dry as possible (with adequate, but not too much water)
If you have an outbreak that you just can’t control, dispose of infected plants immediately to avoid further spread to other crops in your garden. Practicing good garden maintenance at the end of every season- cleaning debris is most important- this will also prevent the chance of insect or bacterial/fungal outbreaks in the following year.
5. Harvesting Broccoli
The immature flower buds of the broccoli are what you want to harvest once its fully developed, preferably before the flowering buds open up that turn into tiny, yellow flowers. If you notice them flowering, harvest immediately to avoid the bitter taste that normally accompanies a vegetable that bolts (sometimes, even if you catch it quick, you might miss the small window of when it turns bitter). You should harvest the head of your broccoli when it reaches its mature size, generally in the 4 to 6 inches range. The size can vary, so make sure you refer to your seed package for specific information about your variety.
Use a sharp knife when you harvest your broccoli off of the main stem and if you aren’t planting anything in that garden spot right away, leave the plant there to form more side shoots. The side shoots will be smaller, but these are still quite delicious and can prolong your broccoli harvest. Adding a dose of a good quality, balanced fertilizer will encourage the side shoots to continue developing.
Always pick your broccoli in the early morning, during the cool hours before the sun starts to heat the temperature up.
Fresh broccoli can be stored in the fridge for up to two weeks, but the longer it’s in the refrigerator, the tougher the stems become, and you begin to loose nutrients. As with most fruits and vegetables-fresh is best! Give it a good wash before you go to eat it.
But what do you do after you’ve reaped your massive broccoli harvest and can’t eat it all within two weeks? What will you do with all of your crop? Luckily, there are ways to save and store broccoli over the winter.
Freezing is a great and easy method to preserve your broccoli harvest for the winter months. Freezing allows for the best preservation of the flavor, color and nutrients in your harvest and if you have ample space (freezer space) to store frozen vegetables, this method is for you. And it’s pretty easy!
First, give your broccoli a good wash with warm water. You can even fill up your sink with warm water and add a little bit of white vinegar to it, soaking the broccoli until any or all of the insects come out of the florets. There are a lot of places for insects to hide in broccoli heads, so make sure you wash them thoroughly. Soak for 15 minutes before drying the florets on a dish towel.
Chop up your broccoli into bite sized florets and cut the stem down to your liking. Next, blanch these in boiling water for around 3 minutes and then place them in an ice bath for the same amount of time to stop the cooking process. Blanching is a great method that allows your broccoli to maintain its color, texture, and nutritional value. Once it’s done in the ice bath, dry the florets out and lay them flat on a baking sheet. Place this sheet in the freezer and this helps the florets from sticking together and freezing evenly. It’s easier when it’s frozen this way, otherwise if you freeze them in a clump, they can be a pain to separate if you just want a handful for a recipe for later.
Once they are sufficiently frozen, add them to freezer bags and write the date on them. Frozen broccoli can last up to 6 months in the freezer.
If you allow a broccoli plant or two to bolt, rather than harvesting the head of the broccoli, then you can save your seeds for next year. Once the small yellow flowers open up, they can be pollinated, which can result in the production of many, many seeds that you can store. Yay to saving money!
Broccoli seeds are very small, so when you go to collect them, it would be a good idea to collect them in a tray. Break the pods off of the stalks and then give them a shake over the tray, then break the pods open with your fingers to get to the seeds inside.
Once you’ve collected your seeds, dry your seeds out for a week or two before placing them in a cool, dark place for the winter. Seeds typically can last up to a couple of years if they are heirloom seeds and a little less if they are hybrid varieties. If you want to see if your seeds germinate, it may be a good idea to try to sprout them in a damp paper towel before you decide to plant them in your garden, just in case they don’t germinate, and you need to find other, viable seeds.
If you collect and save your seeds every year, you can guarantee that your seeds weren’t treated with pesticides and chemicals, which is a good thing if you’re aiming for a more organic approach to vegetable gardening. You can even go to a local seed swap and trade your seeds for some other heirloom and organic seeds from your neighbors.
6. Companion Planting
Companion planting is a great practice to add to your garden. A combination of folklore and science, there are particular fruits, herbs and vegetables that will work to help deter pests from your broccoli and although your harvest to thrive, but on the flipside, there are certain types of plants that you should avoid planting near your broccoli. You can learn quite a bit of what works and what doesn’t through experimentation, but the ones discussed here are tried and tested companions that will be beneficial (or not) when you plant your garden.
Beets are a good companion plant to broccoli because while broccoli is a heavy-feeder in terms of calcium and beets don’t need much calcium at all, so there won’t be any nutrient competition. Just make sure you give each plant the proper amount of growing room!
Chamomile is great at attracting pollinators to your garden and will do great beside your broccoli.
While not necessarily beneficial to your broccoli, lettuce can be planted beside your broccoli in the summer months, when the summer heat tends to bolt or scorch your lettuce leaves. The shade that bigger broccoli leaves can provide, will be a nice, shady cover for some summer lettuce crops that would otherwise not flourish.
Potatoes and broccoli are both heavy-feeders, so it can be tricky when you pick a plant to go alongside both of these vegetables, but the good thing is that these both don’t want what the other needs! Broccoli loves calcium and nitrogen, while potatoes need more magnesium and phosphate, so these two can be planted together- just so long as you have the space.
Planting your broccoli near rhubarb will help deter the cabbage whitefly that can plague your broccoli leaves, but if you don’t eat the leaves (but you can and should!) then this won’t be too big of an issue. Rhubarb leaves can get huge- so be mindful when you plant your broccoli to avoid overcrowding.
Rosemary repels many pests- so planting this herb near your broccoli is highly recommended! Cabbage moths and cabbage loopers don’t like rosemary, and as an added bonus, if you sprinkle some of the herbs’ leaves on the ground around your broccoli plants, its spiky leaves will deter slugs and snails. Win, win!
Companions To Avoid
It’s best to not plant other brassica family members alongside your broccoli, as this will lead to similar nutrient competition and attract the same pests. Rule of thumb is to plant them as far as you can from each other in your garden.
Some say to avoid planting strawberries, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and squash alongside broccoli, since these plants are heavy feeders, and they’ll fight each other for nutrients.
7. Cooking & Eating Broccoli
Broccoli is a diverse vegetable. Eaten raw, steamed, blanched, even deep-fried or in a smoothie! You are only limited by your creativity and imagination when it comes to preparing broccoli. A quick blanch, a slow roast tossed with your favorite seasonings in the oven, or even barbecued on the grill, broccoli is an easy to cook vegetable that is chalked full of nutritional value.
While the florets are most commonly eaten, you can most definitely eat the stalks and leaves of the broccoli too.
The stalk can be just as tender as the florets and can be chopped up and diced can be used just like you would use broccoli, in soups, or stews and stir-fries. Many suggest peeling the outer rind off of the stalk first, since it can be a bit woodsy tasting, but that will depend on your personal preference. Broccoli stalks are great chopped up fine in salads and coleslaws- the added crunch gives you a nice texture contrast with other vegetables. You can even peel the stalk with a vegetable peeler or a spiralizer, to use it in raw dishes or as a noodle alternative. Broccoli rice has become popular, where the stalk is pulsed in a food processor to resemble a rice-like consistency and eaten either raw or sautéed.
Broccoli microgreens can be added to any salad, sandwich or wrap to add a densely nutritional kick to your meal. You could even juice these microgreens and add it to your favourite homemade juice for an added nutritional boost.
Is flowering broccoli safe to eat?
One common question is, can you eat the bright yellow flowers on the heads of broccoli? The simple answer is of course you can eat broccoli flowers. When a plant flowers, it means that it has gone through the process of self-pollination. This happens when the plant’s male and female reproductive organs mature at the same time and the plant transfers pollen from the male organ to the female organ. Self-pollination can occur in both hybrid and non-hybrid plants.
In general, self-pollinated plants are more likely to produce offspring that are genetically similar to the parent plant. This is because there is less genetic diversity in self-pollinated plants than in hybrid plants. Hybrid plants have genes from two different parent plants, which results in more genetic diversity.
So, what does this mean for you? If you’re eating flowering broccoli from your garden, it’s likely that the plant is a self-pollinated plant. This means that the broccoli you’re eating is genetically similar to the parent plant. However, it’s important to remember that every plant is different, so there is no guarantee that all self-pollinated plants will be safe to eat.
A Final Note
Broccoli is a nutritious, popular vegetable to add to your garden. If you have the space, the proper soil conditions, and plant along with the cooler temperatures, this vegetable will thrive in your garden. Starting your own seeds or growing seedlings can be rewarding in its own right and amending your garden beds to meet the needs of your plants will get them off to a great start. Be mindful of watering (and most importantly, over-watering) to avoid common pests or ailments in the future.
Choosing an heirloom type of broccoli will add a uniqueness to your garden and give you a better chance of having viable seeds for the next seasons if you choose to save your broccoli seeds.
Cooking and storing broccoli are diverse and easy, making this vegetable a must-have in your kitchen.