Broccoli belongs to a big, health-promoting family of vegetables known as the brassicas; sometimes referred to as cole crops. From arugula to turnips, this nutrient and phytochemical packed group includes Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, mustard, radish and numerous Asian vegetables. Broccoli ranks near the top as one of America’s all-time favorite garden vegetables and for good reason. If given a good start and proper care it is easy to grow, and all parts of the plant – crunchy stalks, hearty leaves and deliciously tender flower buds – are edible. And broccoli offers a bonus of multiple side shoots that are produced after the main head is harvested.
Like all brassicas, broccoli is a cool season plant. It grows best in a temperature range of 50°-80° and once established can tolerate temperatures into the low 30s. Broccoli should be transplanted into the garden in early fall and if time and space allow stagger your plantings over a 2-3 week period so that all those heads of broccoli are not ready to harvest at the same time. Here in Central Texas we generally start planting in early September and continue into October. Check with your local Extension office or ask experienced gardeners for appropriate planting times in your area.
In order for broccoli to develop a big head it needs to first develop strong roots and healthy leaves. Prepare the soil by working in a layer of compost and about ½-1 cup of complete fertilizer per 10 foot row. A 15-5-10 lawn-type fertilizer (15% nitrogen, 5% phosphorus, 10% potassium) offers an adequate amount of nitrogen to support leafy growth but if you prefer to use an organic garden fertilizer double the amount since the percentage of nitrogen will likely be lower. Give plants plenty of room to grow by spacing them at least 12-18” apart. Water transplants in with a water soluble fertilizer diluted to half strength and for the first week or two use shade cloth, an old window screen or even an umbrella to help protect young transplants from the heat and sun. Broccoli will be ready to harvest in about 8 weeks but stress caused by high heat, lack of moisture or insect damage in the early stages will slow growth and cause smaller heads. Give plants a boost by sidedressing with 2-4 tablespoons of high nitrogen fertilizer when the head begins to form and again just after harvest. Ammonium sulfate (synthetic) and blood meal (organic) are both good choices.
The main pest to watch out for is the cabbage looper which can do serious damage in a few short days. Carefully check the underside of the leaves for the small, green worms and remove them or dust them with a product that contains Bt. Considered an organic control, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a naturally occurring bacterium that lives in the soil and is toxic solely to caterpillars. Be careful to spray it only where caterpillars are doing damage and repeat applications following label instructions.
Hybrid varieties of broccoli include ‘Arcadia’, ‘Belstar’, ‘Green Goliath’, ‘Marathon’ and ‘Packman’. Popular open-pollinated varieties include ‘De Cicco’ and ‘Calabrese’, both heirlooms that came to America with Italian immigrants in the late 1800s. Rather than forming one large head, these sprouting broccolis produce a few smaller central heads followed by several side shoots. ‘Blue Wind’ and ‘Small Miracle’ are suitable for container cultivation. Don’t confuse sprouting broccoli with broccoli raab, which may have broccoli in its name but is more closely related to turnip and shares that typical sharp, slightly bitter flavor.