How to Grow Better Broccoli

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Broccoli

Perhaps a few people get lucky on their first try, but most gardeners spend several seasons learning how to grow broccoli (calabrese). This is because garden broccoli has more precise cultural requirements compared to other vegetables. On every level – timing, soil fertility, spacing, and pest management – broccoli’s rather exact needs must be met. But once you figure out broccoli’s secret formula for success, you can look forward to bountiful yields of this popular and nutritious vegetable.

Getting spring and fall planting times right is the first challenge. The GrowVeg Garden Planner will generate suggested planting dates for your area, but because broccoli is such a difficult child, you should watch each broccoli planting closely, keep records, and talk with your neighbours in attempt to discover the best dates for you. In my climate, for example, I have learned to start my spring crop indoors around March 1, and to start my fall crop around June 15 (this I learned from a more experienced neighbour). Equally important for Garden Planner purposes is the end date of my spring planting, which for me is July 7. Your exact dates will vary, but this is the kind of invaluable data you will need to grow broccoli like a pro. Nail your dates, add them as notes to your Plant List and the Garden Planner will never let you forget them!

We also suggest sticking with 18-inch (45 cm) spacing, unless you are growing a miniature variety intended to be grown in close quarters. Although small seedlings may look lost when set out this far apart, they will quickly fill in the space. Crowding plants often leads to tiny heads and no production of sideshoots, or ratoons.

Of Birds and Broccoli

Most people don’t associate broccoli with birds, but studies from Egypt and the USA have shown poultry manure to be a superior fertiliser for organically grown broccoli. I have had excellent results using a processed turkey manure fertiliser to grow the Belstar variety, a hybrid that is widely available as organic seed

Broccoli protected by netting
Netting broccoli seedlings is the best way to protect them from birds and the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies

I spoil my garden broccoli with fertile, well drained soil with a maximum safe dose of turkey manure fertiliser worked in two weeks before planting, but I have use little or no mulch for my spring crop to reduce problems with slugs. This has worked out well though it means more weeding for me. With or without mulch, controlling weeds is essential to growing bumper crops of broccoli.

I think that robins and other bug-eating birds help reduce problems with the velvety green caterpillars, larvae of the cabbage white butterfly. But they can’t do the job alone. I protect plants with row covers until they get too big, and then use spinosad, a biological pesticide, if I see evidence of caterpillar feeding or the garden seems mobbed by cabbage white butterflies. It is incredibly effective.

Off With Their Heads

When little heads begin to form in the plants’ centres, I make sure my broccoli never runs short of water. On very sunny days, I use a wooden clothespin to fasten three or so leaves together over each ripening head, because too much sun can sharpen broccoli’s flavour. I cut the main head when the florets are still tight, cutting high on the stem so side shoots will have ample room to grow. The side shoots are usually ready two weeks after the main head is harvested.

Freshly cut heads of broccoli

Learning how to grow broccoli usually involves some trial and error, as is shown in Mother Earth News’ Survey of Most Productive Garden Crops. On a scale of 1 (low) to 4 (high), gardeners gave broccoli a 2.4 in terms of ease of culture, but rated it at 3.4 when it came to how much they wanted more garden broccoli in the kitchen. Behind those numbers, the truth is that broccoli is a crop that needs to be attentively courted before it will become your sweetheart.

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Comments

 
"You said "The GrowVeg Garden Planner will generate suggested planting dates for your area" but that really seems to only be true for the spring planting. I hope suggested planting dates for fall sucession plantings will be added soon. This is a good article. I appreciate the tip on covering the developing heads with clipped leaves! You said "the end date of my spring planting" is July 7 ... do you mean that is the time you pull the spent plants from the bed? If so wow. It has been very hot here and my side shoots started instant flowering mid June. Thanks again for the nice article. I need to beg some chicken manure somewhere, lol!"
momomom on Friday 18 June 2010
"Wonderful article! What kind of crop covers do you use? I love broccoli and would like to add 4-5 plants to my raised bed garden this year, but I have heard of bug problems from other local gardeners. Are there other good crops to plant with broccoli to help reduce the bugs?"
Dorian on Friday 1 April 2011
"A fine mesh netting is ideal for keeping cabbage worm and other bugs off broccoli, or you can use horticultural fleece. In my own experience using fine netting (some people use wedding net / tulle netting) is far more effective than planting other crops next to the broccoli."
Jeremy Dore on Saturday 2 April 2011
"Hello, Garden Gurus! I need quick help. My broccoli seedlings were doing so well in their first couple of weeks in the garden. Then yesterday when I checked them, I saw that something had munched off their leaves. So I replaced them, and sprayed them with the only thing I had on hand-an organic pepper wax product. This morning, I was shocked and chagrined to see that the replacements met the same fate as the first plants. I would appreciate any help you can provide. Thanks so much! "
Geri on Friday 20 May 2011
"Can anyone advise me about broccoli head rot? I grew spring broccoli this year and all seemed to be going well. But the 2-inch heads are developing spotty brown areas, which seems to be a bacterial rot. I have never had problems with broccoli, other than worms, and wonder if there is a way to prevent this from happening in the future. "
Kerrie on Monday 6 May 2013
"My broccoli is growing spectacularly - lots of large green leaves but no flowers or broccoli heads. What,s going wrong? Plenty of compost in the soil and watering. When can I expect to see the flowers? Thanks"
Caroline Girling on Saturday 20 July 2013
"We live in South Texas and I guess we are just lucky with broccoli! We buy plants at our local nursery and plant in October. We are usually eating it around Christmas. We enjoy gathering the side shoots after the center head is gone. It snowed one year which is freakish for us, and it was Christmas! Our broccole heads were covered with snow and survived unharmed. We love growing it. Our beds are about 2 feet above ground."
Patsy pearson on Wednesday 28 January 2015
"is this for uk ? the dates for palnting etc please as it would be very useful to make note of this thank you"
julie on Tuesday 4 October 2016
"I have attempted growing broccoli numerous times. This is the first time I have had any measurable success. I found a note that said to use white clips from bread bags to discourage the white moths from laying eggs on my plants. Simply put them on the leaves of any brassicas. I do not know if that is why they have not been touched this year but for the first time I have healthy plants with numerous heads beginning to appear. I am glad I visited the site because it appears now is the perfect time to add a liquid fertilizer. I am in upstate South Carolina. I bought seedlings and planted them in early April. I haven't been using mulch and I have been actively pulling weeds on an almost daily basis. I hope others find this useful."
pat on Monday 14 May 2018
"I have attempted growing broccoli for the first time this year, so far so good. the plant is growing in a pot, healthy and strong with plenty of leaves and I have kept it covered with horticulture fleece until this weekend. I removed the netting this weekend and I sprayed the leaves with a bug spray. I have used Bio-carb on my aubergine leaves, can I use this on broccoli leaves too? Any suggestions on natural remedies to deter pests would be great, esp. with household items. Thanks"
Ruth on Sunday 15 July 2018

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