Broccoli is one of the healthiest veggies you can eat. You can use it raw or cooked in lots of different ways. Unfortunately, the fresh and frozen selections at the grocery store do nothing to boost its reputation. Anyone who’s enjoyed garden-fresh broccoli can attest to the amazingly tender, flavorful difference between that and its commercially grown alternatives. Broccoli is easy to grow, if you follow a few simple tips.
Start with a great location. Broccoli grows well in traditional garden beds and outdoor containers, provided it gets proper sunlight. It requires full sun exposure, at least six hours per day, but will grow even better if it gets a bit of shade or filtered sunlight in the hot afternoon hours.
Broccoli grows best in cool weather, and is capable of withstanding frost once it’s established. In most American gardens, it’s considered an early or late crop. For a spring harvest, plant broccoli two weeks before the average last frost date. For a fall crop, plant it in late summer when the heat begins to subside. For ease of handling, it’s best to start seeds indoors and transplant the young seedlings to the garden.
Broccoli is easy to grow from seed. To start seedlings indoors, sow the seeds a quarter-inch deep in seed trays filled with seed starting mix about eight weeks before the last frost date. Broccoli seeds germinate best in soil temperatures of 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, so room temperature is about right. Moisten the seed trays with a water mister after seeding, and cover them with a clear, plastic humidity dome. Broccoli seeds germinate in 7 to 14 days.
For a fall crop, you can either sow the seeds as described above, or sow them directly into the garden. Start fall seeds about three months before the average first frost date. To speed up germination, soften the seed coat by soaking the broccoli seeds in cool water overnight before planting. Drain the water before planting.
Broccoli plants need fertile, consistently moist, well-drained soil. For garden beds, incorporate a two or three inch layer of compost before planting. Fill containers with high-quality container mix.
Full grown broccoli plants will measure 18 to 30 inches tall and about 24 inches wide, so don’t skimp on space. Plant the seedlings 18 to 24 inches apart in rows that are 36 inches apart. For broccoli grown in a container, plant one seedling per 18 inch standard pot, or 5 gallon container. Add two tablespoons of organic vegetable fertilizer to the hole at planting time.
After planting, water well. Mulch the broccoli seedlings to inhibit weed competition and to retain moisture. Water daily for the first week or so, then back off to only three times per week. Through the season, the plants will need 1 to 2 inches of water per week. Feed them again when they’re about a foot tall, following the instructions on your favorite fertilizer.
When broccoli plants are healthy and well cared for they don’t have many problems, but there are a few insect pests to watch out for.
- Cabbage worms feed on broccoli leaves. If you notice leaf sections that’ve been chewed, inspect the leaf surfaces and undersides and pick off any caterpillars you find. Use Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to knock out advanced infestations.
- Aphids suck the sap out of broccoli foliage, so they wrinkle and turn a splotchy yellow color. Be on the lookout for these tiny, soft-bodied insects clustered on the undersides of leaves. Blast them with a jet from the hose. Spray large infestations with insecticidal soap.
- Flea beetles chew thousands of tiny holes in the leaves, giving them a skeleton-like appearance. Spray these tiny black beetles with pyrethrin-based insecticide if damage advances.
- Cutworms chew through the stems of young seedlings. Often the damage happens at night and the plant is dead before you know there’s a problem. Only plant strong, healthy seedlings. In gardens with a history of cutworm damage, treat seedlings with Bt or spinosad as a protection at planting time.
Broccoli heads are ready to harvest when they’re filled with deep green, tightly packed buds. Use a sharp knife to cut the head from the top of the stalk. Leave the rest of the plant to continue growing. It will produce smaller side shoots in the leaf axils, which you can harvest as they mature. Over a three month period, you can expect a second and maybe third harvest from side shoots after the main head has been harvested.
If the broccoli head or side shoots stay on the plant too long, the buds open to reveal small yellow flowers. Along with the stems, leaves, and buds, broccoli flowers are edible.
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