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Growing broccoli in your spring garden should be a staple plant.
Every gardener should grow some. Broccoli is cold hardy, and very
productive but doesn't handle summer heat very well.
Broccoli is high in vitamins C and D, and iron, and is a good source of dietary fiber. It's easy to preserve for year round use and is also quite versatile.
It can be used in soups, casseroles, salads, as well as steamed, pickled, included in homemade sauerkraut or eaten raw.
Broccoli plants can be started from seeds indoors in mid to late winter, and transplanted into your garden well before the danger of frost has passed.
You can also purchase started plants in flats from a local source. Personally, I find it easier to just buy started plants. There are so many other projects to do in late winter, that I can't justify spending the time messing with seeds when the started plants do so well. If you are looking to maintain an heirloom variety, then starting plants yourself is the only real option you have.
Started broccoli plants should be planted in your spring garden up to a month before the last frost. I have successfully started broccoli as early as the end of February here in Southern Indiana, and our average last frost isn't until mid-April.
I don't necessarily recommend planting that early, but if you're willing to take a gamble, give it a try. Growing Broccoli, like most other spring gardening involves some risk.
In the deep south of the U.S. Broccoli, Cauliflower, and Cabbage are grown during their mild winters.
Planting Broccoli should be done in rows, with plants spaced about 16-18
inches apart, and rows about 24-30 inches apart. If your plants seem a
bit spindly, you can plant them a bit deeper than the original soil
level. Water them in good, or use a water soluble fertilizer like
Miracle Gro, to get them started.
Once planted, broccoli plants are cold hardy, and will withstand a light freeze (as low as 25°F in my experience) without damage. Some folks recommend side dressing with nitrogen fertilizer when plants are about half grown, and this certainly won't do any harm. That being said, I've never used fertilizer on broccoli, and have always had good success without it. The need for fertilizer is largely dependent on the quality of soil in your garden.
With the exception of damage from pests, and competition with weeds, broccoli plants are largely low maintenance. Water them a bit when you first plant them out. Keep them weeded and mulched with dry grass clippings, straw or dry leaves to prevent weeds, and keep an eye out for damage from pests. If you do that, a successful broccoli harvest is nearly assured.
From planting to maturity (ready for first harvest) usually takes between 50 and 60 days depending on weather conditions and the variety that you plant.
When broccoli heads are full and firm, usually 6-10 inches across, it's time for your first harvest. Cut the head using a sharp knife. Cut them off just below the last floret branch, and leave the rest of the plant alone. Broccoli will continue to produce small (1-2") side heads which can be harvested and eaten.
When the weather starts to turn hot, the plants will grow faster, and the florets will bloom quicker. At this point it becomes harder to keep up with harvesting. The flavor will begin to turn strong as well. As long as the weather stays relatively cool and you keep cutting them, more shoots will grow.
As the summer heat comes in, I generally pull up my broccoli plants to make room for summer garden plants. When fall is around the corner, you can replant more broccoli and get a second harvest until the weather turns too cold.
Broccoli can be either eaten fresh, or preserved for later use. The best preserving method I have found is freezing them. Freezing broccoli requires a little advance work, but is well worth the extra effort. Broccoli has to be blanched before freezing to stop bacterial and enzymatic deterioration. If you don't blanch, the flavor can be pretty bad when you thaw it out. Blanched and frozen broccoli can taste just like fresh.
To freeze, wash the broccoli heads to remove any soil and insects. Then cut the heads into single florets or roughly 1" pieces. Blanch the florets in boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Immediately transfer them to ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain in a colander for a couple of minutes to remove any excess water. Freeze them in family size portions in freezer bags.
I have tried vacuum packaging blanched broccoli for freezing with great success. Removing the air helps preserve the flavor even better, reduces the size of the package (taking up less space in your freezer) and makes the florets more durable in the freezer. When you thaw them out and open the bag, they will return to their original shape, with little to no breakage or handling damage.
There are just a few pests that can damage your broccoli plants:
STARLINGS will on occasion break newly planted broccoli plants off even with the ground. They don't eat the plant after they break it off, they will just leave it laying on the ground for you to see. If you have starling problems, you can try covering tender young plants with a light fabric or row tents. I prefer shooting or trapping the nasty critters.
They're introduced non-natives to the US, and are contributing to the decline of native cavity nesting birds like bluebirds, redheaded woodpeckers and purple martins. They do this by aggressively taking over nesting cavities, often killing the parent birds in the process, so I'll take out every one of 'em I get a chance to.
FURRY CRITTERS Rabbits and Squirrels like Broccoli, and will eat the leaves and heads given a chance. If you see a rabbit or squirrel eating your broccoli, try sprinkling the plants with (hot) red pepper powder. They can't stand the heat and will leave your plants alone after the first taste. You have to re-apply after any rain, because it washes off easily.
If they continue to be a problem, consider live trapping and releasing them somewhere miles away from your garden.
CABBAGE LOOPERS Ever see a little white butterfly fluttering around your broccoli or cabbage plants? If you live in North America, this is most likely a cabbage looper butterfly. They lay their eggs on plants like broccoli, and the caterpillars eat the leaves. The damage they do is normally superficial and they can be washed off before blanching. If you have a larger infestation try using a pesticide. Check with your local garden center or county extension agent to see what is effective (and legal) in your area.
Growing Broccoli is a skill that every home gardener should learn. It is a perfect vegetable for the spring garden. Broccoli can be planted very early in the year, and can be harvested until the weather becomes too hot. It can be replanted in the fall for a second harvest. It's easy to grow, nutritious, easy to preserve, and tastes way better than frozen or canned broccoli from the grocery store.