Have you ever tried growing broccoli only to be disappointed by small heads, black rotted spots, yellow fruit and leaves, or worse…worms? Eww!
Isn’t it so disappointing?! I know, I’ve been there! Just like every garden failure, I learned from the experience, and I have figured out the tricks to growing great broccoli! Even though winter still claims this time of year, if you drive by my house, you will be greeted by the sweet delicate yellow flowers of my last broccoli plant.
Broccoli is one of my favorite vegetables to eat from our home garden, so I’ve harvested most of the heads already. I love it when my personal chef (aka Hubz) browns broccoli heads in butter, salt, and pepper. The crispy brown edges are seriously to die for.
Did you know that vegetables like broccoli actually contain a fair amount of sugar in them? I wrote a whole post about getting sweeter produce from your crops like broccoli.
To make the best of that increased sugar content, roast or brown them in a skillet with butter or (gasp!) bacon fat. The sugar in the plant caramelizes in the heat and fat making those divine crispy bits I love so much!
So let’s go over how to grow broccoli.
Broccoli is very adaptable to growing at home. You can grow broccoli in the ground or raised beds. Growing broccoli in containers also works well, and you can follow these same tips for every method of gardening.
If you don’t have the space or the time for growing a full head of broccoli, consider growing microgreens right on your kitchen counter. Broccoli needs 6-8 hours of sunlight every day. It can be planted in the spring and the fall but, it does best in cooler weather.
It is important to set your broccoli out in your garden when it will have time to grow while the temperature is not too hot. When broccoli is grown in temperatures in the upper 70s F, it’s going to start bolting and turn bitter.
On the other hand, a mature broccoli plant can take a bit of frost and tolerates temps down to the mid 20s F. The plant will react to the cold by increasing the sugar content in its leaves and fruit which prevents the water in the plant from freezing in cold temps. Cool, huh?
The first trick to delicious homegrown broccoli is getting your timing right.
Plant broccoli so that it comes to age during a time of cold rather than heat. Every variety has a somewhat different time to harvest, but it can take up to 90 days until its ready.
That means if you’re like me and growing broccoli in Georgia, you’ve got to get your broccoli plants in the ground about February and October. In other areas, 2 weeks before your last frost and 4-6 weeks before the first frost are recommended.
That seems simple enough, right? It does not like heat and thrives in mild, cool weather.
But if it’s grown during periods of temperature extremes, i.e. when nights are cold and days are hot, it may produce miniature heads of broccoli called buttons. Ugh, it’s so picky!
Tip for growing big broccoli heads: Heavy mulching can protect your growing broccoli roots from temperature extremes, and, in warm climates, choose an area that gets some afternoon shade.
Growing broccoli from seed versus buying plants.
Although you can plant broccoli seed directly in your garden, it can be a slow starter. So in most cases, you’re better off starting your seeds indoors where you can control their environment and have them ready to plant at the right time.
Start your broccoli seeds no less than 8 weeks before your desired planting date. Give them an ideal germination temp of 60-70 degrees F, and you should have sprouting broccoli within a week although it can take longer (up to 3 weeks!).
If you have them on a heat mat, move them off of it after they’ve sprouted, and give them plenty of light until they are ready to go outside. About a week before it’s time to plant, don’t forget to harden off your baby broccoli plants.
To accomplish this, set them out in the sunlight for an hour and increase the time every day for about a week. This helps prepare them transition from an indoor to an outdoor environment.
Alternatively, buy your broccoli plants from a local nursery. Look for plants that are at least 6 inches tall and have 2 to 4 sets of true leaves.
Planting broccoli in your vegetable garden
When you have your timing right, get your garden ready by adding fresh compost and working it into your garden soil. Dig a hole for your broccoli plants so that you can bury up to 2 inches of the stem. Heavily mulch around your broccoli plants with compost or straw to keep protect the roots from heat, retain moisture, and keep out weeds.
Growing broccoli in dense or compacted soil doesn’t work out very well, and it really needs its personal space. Broccoli plant spacing is one of the keys to getting good flavorful heads. If they’re too close together, they compete for water and nutrients. Plus they’re more prone to disease and pest problems. Space your broccoli plants at least 12 inches apart and keep the rows 2-3 feet apart. If the plants are too crowded, they won’t make big beautiful broccoli heads.
The second trick to growing great broccoli is to encourage a slow and steady growth rate.
Fertilize broccoli plants organic fertilizer once monthly and don’t let it get dry. A lack of water will cause tough inedible stems.
Install a soaker hose to keep water from puddling in the heads and leaves to decrease the chance of fungal infections and pest problems.
Pest problems for broccoli plants
Broccoli is less attractive to pests than other plants in your garden, but you can see all the usual suspects including aphids, cabbageworms, slugs, and flea beetles.
The best organic pest control for broccoli is to lay a floating row cover that allows light, air, and water to move through it but prevents pests from getting access to your plants. See this article for more information on row covers.
Alternatively, remove pests by hand and use an organic insecticidal soap as needed. Companion plants that may help deter pests and attract beneficial insects include marigolds, zinnias, parsley, and sweet alyssum.
Other broccoli problems
Yellowing leaves are often the first signal of a problem. Consider your fertilizing schedule as yellow leaves can be a signal that your plant needs nitrogen. Insects can also cause yellow spots by puncturing the leaves.
If the lower leaves of your broccoli plant are turning yellow and the heads of your broccoli are stunted and bitter, the problem may be a fungal infection called Fusarium wilt.
Foul smelling black spots on the leaves and stems also indicate a fungal infection.There is no treatment for these fungal diseases so destroy infected plants and avoid planting in the same location for the next two years.
Is your broccoli bolting?
If you’ve been watching a broccoli plant in your garden and you notice that the head starts to open up like in the photo below, that’s a pretty clear signal that your broccoli plant is starting to flower…aka bolting.
Unless you want to eat the flowers or save seed, it’s time to go ahead and harvest your broccoli for eating. Broccoli bolting is your signal that the plant is going into the flowering phase. You can certainly eat it after it’s started bolting, and it will still be delicious.
Watching your weather, try to let your broccoli grow through some cold snaps or even a frost. And definitely get it in the kitchen before the weather gets too warm. If nothing else, remember this about broccoli: heat and drought will make your broccoli turn bitter and tough.
The third trick to growing great broccoli is to harvest and eat it at the right time.
You can harvest your broccoli head at any time you want to eat it. There is nothing wrong with harvesting the baby sized broccoli heads if that’s how you prefer to eat them.
To harvest, cut under the broccoli head and take some of the stem but leave the plant in your garden. You may get a few more little heads sprouting off of the main stem. Or, if you like, you can wait and let it start to bolt so you can eat the flowers!
Broccoli flowers are delicate little yellow flowers, and they can be picked and eaten fresh in salads or cooked as you would the rest of the broccoli plant. But if you wait too long, and the flowers dry up, they won’t be very tasty at all.
This video about harvesting broccoli is great.
Saving seed from broccoli plants
It is not very obvious how to save seed from broccoli plants until someone points it out to you.
The broccoli flower is self-pollinating meaning it doesn’t need bees or other pollinators to visit it-contrary to what he implies in the video above. Once the broccoli flower falls off, it leaves behind the ovary that will grow into a little seed pod.
In order to collect seed from your broccoli plant, you’ll need to let it flower and then dry up. Once the flower stems have turned brown, you can harvest the seeds from within the little seed pods. But be warned, the seed is very, very small. So have something to catch it when you open the pods.
Here is a great video with more information about saving broccoli seeds.
Are you ready to start growing broccoli?
I know this is a long post, so just remember these rules to grow your own delicious broccoli at home.
- Get your timing right and plant your broccoli when your temperatures are above 25F and not higher than 75F, and try to protect it from temperature extremes.
- Give your broccoli an ideal growing environment with fertile soil and regular watering to encourage slow and steady growth. Mulch heavily to prevent weed competition and monitor your plants for pests and disease.
- Heat and lack of water will cause bitter, tough broccoli that is not good to eat.
- Harvest your broccoli and its pretty yellow flowers before the weather starts to warm up. The heat will make it taste bitter. If it’s already flowering and turning yellow-brown, it’s too late. Save that plant for seeds.