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How to Grow Broccoli in the Home Garden

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Broccoli kind of gets a bad rap, at least on tv, as being one of those gross green vegetables. Well, I’m here to tell you that it are one of the most delicious and nutritious cool weather vegetables you can grow in the home garden for a spring or fall harvest. I don’t know about you, but fresh broccoli is a staple veggie for my family. 

Broccoli is extremely versatile and can be eaten raw, fresh from the garden, or cooked up in a number of dishes from stir fry to soups. We actually love it roasted in the oven.  Did you know that the leaves are also edible and nutritious? It’s true. 

So now that you’re fully convinced to grow broccoli in your vegetable garden, let me give you all the details

Health benefits of brassicas

Both broccoli and cauliflower are in a family of vegetables called brassicas or cole crops. Other members of this family also include cabbage, kale, and brussels sprouts. They are typically grown in the fall and can easily be part of a Low Maintenance Fall Garden (click the link to see what you can grow for a fall crop.) But here are the health benefits of adding these delicious cool season vegetables to your garden:

  • As with many green vegetables, broccoli is packed full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. This plant’s leaves, stalk, and undeveloped flower (what we call the head) is rich in vitamin K and C and is a good source of folate, potassium, and fiber.
  • Fun to grow, which is a proven health booster. Gardening in general is fabulous for your health.
  • Broccoli is such a familiar veggie, but many of us have never seen it grown. It is rewarding and fun to plant a seed, care for it, and bring in the harvest of nutritious, fresh produce.
  • Planting broccoli can also be a great teaching tool for kids to learn the parts of a plant. It is one of the few plants that we harvest and eat the unopened flower buds. (Want help introducing gardening and the parts of a plant to your kids or grandkids? Grab my free Kids Gardening Printables!)

Growing broccoli: seeds or plants?

Not sure which to choose for adding to your garden this year? Here are the breakdowns on using seeds or young plants for growing in the garden. 

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Seeds: There are several benefits to using seeds instead of plants, but a few drawbacks as well.

  • Less expensive to grow from seed.
  • Wide variety of both heirloom and hybrid seeds available that are very different from the conventional broccoli that from the store. (See the list of popular varieties at the bottom of this post.)
  • When you choose to grow your own broccoli from seeds, you can experiment with several varieties including purple varieties or broccoli rabe!

Plants: Considering growing your broccoli from established plants from the store? Here are the pros and cons:

  • It’s super easy to use established plants 
  • Just starting out growing your own veggies, or don’t have time or knowledge to start from seed? Your best option would be to purchase established plants.
  • You get a big head start when you plant them in the ground versus using seeds (So less time to wait before harvesting!)
  • Limited variety available when using seedlings
  • More expensive. A 4-cell pack of broccoli plants can easily cost twice as much as a single packet of seeds which may contain 50-100 seeds.

How much broccoli should I grow?

People often wonder, how much broccoli do I need to plant to have enough for my family. Great question! Depending on the variety, and your growing season, you will want to plant about 2-3 plants per person in your family.

If your family is made of big time broccoli eaters, then consider growing more in succession. And depending on how you usually use your broccoli, stir fries versus steaming whole heads, you can choose a variety that suits your cooking needs. See my list at the bottom for popular varieties and what they’re best suited for. 

The best time to grow broccoli

Broccoli is a cool-weather crop and is a vegetable that has the tendency to bolt, or go to seed, when it gets too hot. It is best to grow in the spring or fall when temperatures in your area remain between 40-70 degrees. 

Broccoli is one of the earliest plants to grow in the early spring garden, and it’s also a fantastic fall garden choice. If you live in cooler climates, then your broccoli growing season could extend into late summer, especially if you’re growing in an area with dappled light or partial shade. A homemade cold-frame could also give you the opportunity to grow broccoli year-round into those cold winter months. 

For southern growers, with super hot summers, be sure to take advantage of mild winters as a great time to grow broccoli as well. If you live in an area that has hardly any frosts in winter, then chances are you can grow broccoli all the way through the winter.

How to grow broccoli

Soil Conditions

Choose a planting site that will get full sun, 6-8 hours per day. Broccoli is also a heavy feeder, and likes well-drained soil. They’re perfect to plant in a raised bed with soil rich in organic matter or compost. Use your own compost from home and consider adding in some rich animal compost, such as Black Kow or Earthworm castings. See more details below about how using rich compost could help you keep down the amount of fertilizer you’ll need.

When to start broccoli seeds

If you choose to grow broccoli from seed, start them indoors 6-8 weeks before your last frost date, or outdoors 2-3 weeks before that date. For fall planting, which is best for warm climates, sow seeds outdoors 85-100 days before the first fall frost. Follow the planting instructions on the seed packet as a good rule of thumb, as there may be differences based on variety.

Spacing for broccoli plants

Transfer seedlings outdoors when they have 4-5 leaves (about 4-6 weeks). Space them 12-20 inches apart. If you direct sow in the fall, space seeds about 3 inches apart and thin to 12-20 inches when the plants are about 3 inches tall. (Not sure how to thin seedlings? I’ve got you covered!)

The Best Fertilizer for Broccoli and Cauliflower

The best fertilizer for broccoli and cauliflower is one that provides balanced nutrition, especially high in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (those three numbers you see on any fertilizer package).

Additionally, these vegetables benefit from a mix of micronutrients. Having a soil test done is always a great idea every year or so. This will also help guide the choices you make in fertilizing and composting your garden area for the needs of your plants, as well as evaluating soil ph. Here are some recommendations:

  1. Nitrogen (N): Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are heavy nitrogen feeders, especially during the early growth stages. Use a fertilizer with a higher nitrogen content as a good start to support leafy green growth. A balanced fertilizer with a higher first number in the N-P-K ratio (such as 10-10-10 or 14-14-14) is suitable.
  2. Phosphorus (P): Phosphorus is crucial for root development and flowering. A moderate level of phosphorus in the fertilizer is essential. Look for a fertilizer with a balanced N-P-K ratio.
  3. Potassium (K): Potassium helps with overall plant health, disease resistance, and the development of strong stems. A balanced fertilizer with a higher third number in the N-P-K ratio is beneficial.
  4. Micronutrients: Broccoli and cauliflower also benefit from micronutrients like magnesium, calcium, boron, and others. Consider using a complete fertilizer that includes these essential trace elements.
  5. Organic Options: If you prefer organic gardening, you can use well-rotted compost, aged manure (such as chicken manure or aged cow manure), or organic fertilizers labeled for vegetable use. These options provide a slow release of nutrients and improve soil structure and really are one of the best ways to give your plants what they need. There are many gardeners who don’t use store bought fertilizers at all but who rely solely on rich soil. 
  6. Granular or Liquid Fertilizer: Both granular and liquid fertilizers can be suitable. Granular fertilizers are usually applied before planting or as a side dressing during the growing season. Liquid fertilizers, such as fish emulsion, are often applied as a foliar spray or along with water for faster absorption. The best way to use fertilizers is really based on your preference and time. 

Remember to follow the recommended application rates on the fertilizer packaging, and avoid over-fertilizing, as this can lead to nutrient imbalances and other issues. Additionally, soil testing can help you determine specific nutrient needs for your garden.

How much to water broccoli plants

It is important to keep the soil moist while broccoli is growing so the plants will not become stressed and susceptible to pests and disease. This is especially true at the time of planting. (Did you know that healthy plants are so much less likely to be attacked by pests? True story!) Well draining soil is important here because though you want the soil moist, you don’t want it soaking wet, which could kill the roots of your broccoli and cauliflower seedlings. Aim for one inch of water per week. 

Mulching around the plants will help retain moisture in the soil especially in spring as days begin to warm up. Use a non-dyed mulch or pine straw to keep the moisture in (see my full post about the best mulches for gardens). Also consider planting close together to keep the soil shaded. This will also help with weeds.

Using a drip irrigation system such as Garden in Minutes gardening grids or a soaker hose with a timer is recommended since ground watering will help prevent rot on the developing small heads. Water at least 1 to 1 ½ inches per week. And be sure to check the soil with your finger to make sure it is moist, but not soaking wet.

Should broccoli plants be pruned?

If you want one large head then it may be to your advantage to prune off the side shoots that develop. (Be sure to snack on those, too.) This will allow the plant to focus its energy on the main head. 

On the other hand, it has been suggested to pinch out the developing central head about a month after transplanting in order to encourage several large side shoots instead of one main head and smaller shoots. Try it both ways and see which method works best for you. And as always, feel free to leave a comment about the method that has worked best for you!

broccoli plant with small broccoli head growing
Our fall broccoli plant, just starting to produce.

When to harvest broccoli

For best quality, harvest your broccoli while the mature heads are still tight and before the yellow flower buds begin to open. To harvest, make a slanted cut with a sharp knife a few inches down the stem to remove the head. This allows water to run off and not pool which can cause the plant to rot.

If you can leave the plant healthy and in place, then there’s always the chance for more harvests from the smaller side shoots of the plant. This is especially true for stir fry broccoli varieties. 

How to store fresh broccoli

Broccoli will stay fresh in your fridge for about 5 days. If you choose to wash it before storing, make sure you take the time to dry the broccoli properly.

Another option is to freeze your broccoli for longer storage. If you have a large crop that you want to save for those winter months, simply blanch your broccoli and store in the freezer for up to a year. (The process is similar to how we Freeze Green Beans.)

Common broccoli pests and diseases

The first line of defense against pests and diseases is always a healthy plant. Make sure your broccoli is getting the right amount of water and nutrients to keep it strong and less susceptible to attack. 

Want to keep all of your pest control natural? Check out my complete guide to natural pest control

Pests and Natural Treatments:

  • Curling leaves could be a sign of the presence of aphids.  Check the backs of leaves for tiny bugs present. Aphids can be dealt with by spraying them off with water or applying soapy water to all sides of the leaves.
  • Flea beetles are tiny black bugs that chew small holes in the leaves of plants. Full grown plants can usually withstand flea beetles, but seedlings are going to suffer the most damage from this pest. Make sure to protect them row covers or try using a neem oil spray to keep the flea beetles at bay.
  • Cabbage looper, cabbage worm, and diamondback moth larvae also feed on the leaves. One way to prevent these pests from ruining your crop is to use an insect barrier (row cover) to cover your plants. See my full post on cabbage worms and the methods I use to protect all of my brassicas from this pest.

Broccoli diseases and treatments:

  • One way to prevent disease is to buy your seed/ plants from a reliable source. It is possible for seeds to arrive already infected. So be sure to check the leaves and roots of a plant before bringing it home. And if you get a plant home and realize there’s root rot (black roots), please take it back and exchange it for a healthy plant.
  • To prevent the fungus called clubroot you should use a four year crop rotation strategy. Meaning don’t plant broccoli, or any member of the cabbage family (Brassica), in the same soil year after year. One recommendation is to rotate your crops according to “family” on a four year schedule. Leaf (including Barassica), fruit (like tomato), root (think carrots or beets), then legume.

Companion plants for broccoli

  • Plant marigolds nearby to help prevent the cabbage moth from destroying your broccoli.
  • These aromatic herbs/plants can help repel common garden pests: garlic, mint, basil, rosemary, thyme, and dill.
  • Since broccoli is a heavy feeder, consider planting them further away from asparagus, cantaloupe, sweet corn, pumpkin and watermelon, which will compete for nutrients. 
  • Other plants to avoid planting near broccoli include beans, eggplant, mustard greens, tomatoes, pepper, squash, and strawberries.

Di Ciccio Heirloom broccoli– Old world Italian favorite

Waltham 29 broccoli– The variety of broccoli that Thomas Jefferson grew in his garden!

Calabrese Heirloom broccoli– One of the most popular home broccoli varieties

stir fry broccoli in a wood raised bed garden
Stir fry broccoli in our fall garden

Broccoli Growing FAQ’s

Can broccoli grow in containers?

If you don’t have the ability to plant your broccoli in the ground, you can transfer your seedlings into pots, one in each 5 gallon container. Remember, they are heavy feeders.

How do you save broccoli seed?

If you want to save seed, simply allow one of your plants to bolt. After the flowering, the plant will form seed pods. When the pods are fully developed, remove the entire plant and hang to dry for 2 weeks. Then crush the pods open and remove the seeds (warning: the seeds are very small so use do it over a white paper to be able to see them better).

What does it mean when my broccoli plant blooms?

This process, called bolting or going to seed, usually happens at the end of the season, or if broccoli is grown in too warm of temperatures. I encourage you to leave blooming plants for the bees, as this is a great source of food for them. Our broccoli stays in the raised beds all winter, and in late winter, the yellow blooms bring in dozens of bees.

How soon after cutting should broccoli be used?

Broccoli fresh from the garden can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

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