Grow a Bumper Crop of Fall Broccoli!
Unless you agree with the first President Bush about the flavor of broccoli, chances are you have thought about growing this delicious Cabbage Family (Brassica) crop. Perhaps you have even started seeds in spring, or brought home transplants. But did you know that broccoli is even better and easier to grow as a fall crop, and that the newest varieties greatly expand the growing season — not to mention the flavor! — of this ultra-nutritious vegetable? Let’s take a new look at broccoli, with a step-by-step guide for growing and a few pointers along the way.
Three things to remember when growing broccoli:
1. It loves moisture, so the soil must never be allowed to dry out. Of course, it also hates standing water, so you can’t simply drench it. Plant it in rich, well-worked soil, apply a heavy mulch to keep moisture from evaporating, and water at about 1½ inches a week, or even more in hot, dry, and/or windy climates.
2. Its roots are very shallow, so sometimes even weeding can damage the plant. Again, mulch is your best friend, along with proper spacing (about 18″ apart) of plants.
3. It loves full sun, but if you live in a hot climate or simply can’t give it constant sunlight, it adapts to light shade by setting smaller heads.
With these in mind, find your garden spot. Acidic soil is best (pH of 6-7 is idyllic), but whatever you have, make sure that it’s organically rich and well-draining. In most cases, a little compost worked in before planting and some slow-release fertilizer will go a long way.
In midsummer (85 to 100 days before the first fall frost in your garden), sow broccoli seeds directly into the garden or in your Bio Dome. Both methods have advantages: direct-planting in the garden avoids any possible transplant shock, while starting indoors enables you to select only the strongest plants for transplanting, and to space them just where you want them to grow. (It also buys you a little time to to harvest the summer veggies that may be growing where you want to put your broccoli, and to prepare the soil.) The outdoor temperature isn’t really a factor: broccoli grows happily in temperatures from 40 degrees to 80+, and the seeds germinate in darkness, covered by ½” of soil, so the choice is entirely yours.
If you start the seeds in the garden, place 2 to 3 per planting hole, and space the holes about 6″ apart. You will thin them to 18″ apart when the seedlings are just an inch or so high. If you’re using the Bio Dome, drop just one seed into the pre-drilled hole in the bio-sponge, and don’t worry about covering them. Indoors or out, the seeds will sprout in about 7 to 10 days.
Transplant seedlings begun indoors when they are about 3 inches high — usually 5 to 6 weeks after germination. The sooner and smaller the seedlings, the less developed the root system, which is actually a good thing for these shallow-rooted plants. Take your time with the transplant process, hardening off the seedlings in a sheltered spot outdoors for several days before setting them into the soil, watering them in thoroughly, and providing a bit of shade for the first few days if it’s still boiling hot in the late-summer or early-fall garden.
Once the seedlings are growing happily, feed them twice weekly with Soil Blast or other nitrogen-heavy organic fertilizer, and apply Sea Magic or similar foliar spray several times during the growth season. Another advantage of growing in fall is that most of the spring and summer pests are gone, but keep your eye out for flea beetles, cabbage loopers, and other destructive nibblers, taking prompt action if they move in.
When you begin to see the broccoli crowns emerge, try not to water the plants overhead any longer. Unless you live in a windy climate, moisture can cause the budding florets to mold. Watch the crowns carefully, letting them mature but not to flower. You may want to cut the first central crown a bit early, because this encourages side-shoots to emerge.
Of course, not all broccoli has a large central head and smaller side heads. Today’s varieties include “sprouting” types, which offer smaller, less rounded heads on tender stems. And then there’s showstopping Romanesco, with its pointed turrets and spires, which is harvested entire instead of cut-and-come-again style. And did you know that some of the newer varieties are far less temperature-sensitive, so they can continue producing through winter in mild areas?
Broccoli has many companions in the vegetable garden, but one that you may not have considered is not a vegetable at all (though you will want to cut it almost every day during its season!). It’s super-easy zinnia, which you can start from seed at the same time as your broccoli seeds. Zinnia sprouts and grows in a flash, sets masses of flowers, and attracts the wasps and bees that feed on many broccoli predators, such as cabbageworms, loopers, and aphids.
Try some broccoli this year in the fall garden. You may be surprised by how easy it is, and the flavor of home-grown spears and florets is so much richer and more succulent than store-bought varieties! If winter comes early this year, a touch of frost won’t hurt your broccoli plants one bit, and if your garden is treated to an Indian Summer, broccoli likes that kind of weather, too. In other words, you can’t go wrong! Happy growing this gourmet treat!