From its humble beginnings in Italy six centuries ago, broccoli has emerged as the second most popular vegetable (after potatoes) in America. Per capita consumption is above 6 pounds (2.7kg) annually, which is a lot of broccoli! Of course you will want to grow broccoli in your organic garden, because freshly harvested broccoli is remarkably tender, and loaded with vitamins A, K, and iron. Here are my top tips for gardening success growing broccoli.
1. Try Different Types of Broccoli
Choose sprouting broccoli or long-stemmed ‘DeCicco’ for fresh eating, along with a few big-headed hybrids for the freezer. In most climates, you can grow broccoli in spring for summer harvest, and start more seeds in July for a second crop in the fall.
2. Reduce Stressors
The best broccoli suffers no setbacks in growth due to various stresses, particularly crowded roots. If you can’t set out rootbound seedlings, do take a few minutes to pot them up into larger containers. Harden off greenhouse-grown seedlings for a few days before transplanting them into the garden. If there is an art to growing broccoli, it is doing whatever is necessary to sidestep stress.
3. Plant in Rich, Tight Soil
Broccoli needs plenty of nutrients, so be generous with compost and a balanced organic fertilizer when preparing planting space. Big broccoli plants rock in the wind, but not when they are firmly anchored in their favorite soil type, which is dense, clay-based loam with a near-neutral pH.
4. Protect Transplants with Cloches or Covers
Wind, hail, rabbits and squirrels cannot sabotage your broccoli when seedlings are protected with cloches or grown under row cover tunnels. Fabric covers will provide constant protection from wind, hail, animals, and egg laying by cabbage white butterflies, which hatch into leaf-eating cabbageworms.
5. Feed and Water
Fertilize when tiny coin-size heads form deep inside the plants, using a water-soluble plant food. From this point on it’s important to avoid any unnecessary wetting of the emerging heads, which can lead to unwanted pockets of rot. Use a biodegradable mulch such as weathered straw to help keep roots cool and moist between waterings.
6. Protect Plants in Hot Summers
In hot summers, when the heads reach half their mature size, I use a wood clothes pin to fasten the tips of three or four long leaves into a pointed hat that filters out sun and sheds rain for the last week or so before harvest. Alternatively, you can erect a cloth shade cover above maturing broccoli plants when the heads are almost ready to harvest.
7. Harvest Promptly
Most popular hybrids like ‘Belstar’ and ‘Marathon’ have medium-size florets, or beads, that should still be fully green, with no hint of yellowing, when the primary head is cut. Err on the side or earliness if you must! Many varieties produce smaller secondary heads after the main one is cut.