The following 101 on growing broccoli comes from HOMEGROWN member Marianne, a.k.a. Mary, a dirt-under-her-fingernails city slicker and seed supplier from the Sunshine State. For more tips on planting and growing, visit her blog, Back to the Basics. Thanks, Mary, and please keep the good ideas germinating!
There are three main types of broccoli grown in the United States: calabrese, sprouting broccoli, and, to a lesser extent, purple cauliflower. At nine to 12 weeks from planting to harvest, calabrese is quicker and easier to grow than the other types, which can require as many as 40 weeks, so we’re sticking with it in the instructions below. (Nothing wrong with easy when it gets you delicious veggies, right?) Got a green thumb for the purple stuff or for sprouting broccoli? Post a comment below and share your insights!
And for seeds, calabrese or otherwise, check out this list of HOMEGROWN members’ favorite seed suppliers. Know of another top-shelf option? Post a comment and spread the love. Thanks!
WHEN, WHERE, AND HOW TO SOW
A cool-weather crop, broccoli thrives in temps below 86 degrees F. The ideal growing window is even a little bit breezier, about 65 to 75 degrees. Because broccoli bolts, or flowers and goes to seed, in hot weather (hey, don’t we all), you'll want to get cracking early: about two to three weeks before your last spring frost or 12 to 14 weeks before your first winter frost. To determine your area’s average first and last frost dates, check out this handy chart from The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
For best results, plant your broccoli in a spot where you’ve recently grown peas or beans, as these legumes leave behind deposits of nitrogen—something broccoli loves to soak up for healthy growth and development. Broccoli likes a soil pH of roughly 6 to 7. Also, just a note that you'll want to let a spot rest for about four years before regrowing broccoli in the same space. Moving one raised bed over from season to season is fine!
Working in an open and sunny or partially shaded area, sow your broccoli seeds thinly, approximately 1 inch deep in rows spaced 3 feet apart. Cover the seeds loosely with soil then water thoroughly. The seeds will germinate within about 10 days, at which point the seedlings—just a reminder that we’re talking calabrese, here—can be thinned to 1 foot apart. To do so, choose the hardiest-looking seedling every foot or so and leave it alone. Pluck the rest. (It’s survival of the fittest, y’all.)
Broccoli is a friendly sort—one of the nicest kids on the playground, hardly ever starting fights—and especially likes to grow near basil, bush beans, cucumber, dill, garlic, hyssop, lettuce, marigold, mint, nasturtium, onion, potato, radish, rosemary, sage, thyme, and tomato (as in that photo at right). When celery, onions, and potatoes are planted nearby, they improve broccoli’s flavor.
In addition to nitrogen, broccoli loves plenty of calcium and is a bit of a calcium hog, so pairing it with plants that need less is a good strategy. Think beets and nasturtiums; you can plant the latter right under the broccoli. Herbs such as rosemary, dill, and sage help repel pests with their distinct aromas. Pretty much the only things broccoli doesn’t like are grapes, strawberries, mustards, and rue, but we won’t hold that against it. Find more tips on companion planting in Mary’s blog.
Broccoli likes moist soil, so water every few days to once a week if you’re planting in the ground, more often in raised beds or containers that tend to dry out quickly. Avoid directly watering the heads once they form.
Calabrese is an extremely fast-growing crop; some varieties will be ready to harvest within as few as 65 days. If you sow in April or May, you could be dining on broccoli from July through November.
Harvest the broccoli when the side florets start to loosen slightly but the main head remains very compact. Cut the main head at its base, leaving the smaller heads to continue growing. You can harvest those separately in the subsequent weeks as they mature.
MORE THINGS TO GROW
• From HOMEGROWN member Lucy: Growing Lettuce 101
• From High Mowing Organic Seeds: Growing Garlic 101
• And from HOMEGROWN: Growing Sprouts 101
Got a hairy broccoli issue coming to a head? Post maydays, tips, links, or photos of your own successes or concerns below and keep the conversation rolling. You can dig up more things to sow early and often in the Fall Planting and Winter Planting 101s, and you can always find more things to plant, grow, make, craft, cook, preserve, and water in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.
I have a question. Do you trim off the top leaves once the broccoli head starts to form? You know, so the plant puts more effort into forming the head instead of feeding all of the leaves? Also, I've seen people grow broccoli the size of their head, and I always seem to get stuck with broccoli that would make a grocer laugh. What gives?
We posted Chris's query to HOMEGROWN's Facebook page (well, at least the first part). Responses so far:
• Tim Hammond-Williams i would think not since the plant needs the leaves to synthesize food in the first place.........plus they taste just as good!!
I think the plant needs the leaves to produce the heads. I've had great broccoli two years in a row with very little knowledge and zero experience. It's a happy crop. Once you've harvested the center head, though, it's fine to harvest a couple of leaves from each plant to put in salads or saute. They are delicious!
Thanks for posting my question on Facebook. Yes, the plant does needs leaves for photosynthesis and to "breathe"...which is why my query was about trimming off "the top leaves". I've been removing the top layer of leaves and so far I seem to be getting somewhat larger heads of broccoli this year. I'm really not a fan of eating the leaves as they are quite thick and somewhat on the bitter side. My chickens, however, protest loudly if they see me break off a few leaves and not give them any.
Also, I read somewhere recently that broccoli is a "calcium hog". So I'm considering putting ground up eggshells into a half gallon jug of water, letting it sit there for a few weeks to a month, and using that to fertilize the broccoli plants. I got this idea from an old guy whose college roommate back in the 60's did this for growing cannibis and it worked really well. So I don't see why this shouldn't work for any other plants such as broccoli who need calcium.
As for growing broccoli heads the size of your head... I'm starting to think it has a lot to do with the seeds. Forget the seed packets from Home Depot, the next time I grow broccoli, I'm ordering heirloom seeds from the seedsavers.org catalog. Someone else I know built a super earthtainer out of an IBC tote had bought heirloom seeds (from mypatriotsupply.com) and the broccoli heads were ginormous!