Four Secrets to Growing Large Broccoli Heads
Are you frustrated that you can't grow large heads of broccoli? You're not alone! Many gardeners have this problem. Read below to discover my four secrets for harvesting huge heads:
1) Choose the right variety
Some varieties of broccoli have been bred for larger-size heads. Some varieties produce a large number of harvestable side-shoots after the main head has been cut. A few varieties do both. Do some research, and experiment with different varieties, to discover one that will produce well for you.
2) Never let the seedlings become root bound
I rarely see broccoli seedlings sold in the tiny 4-packs in commercial garden centers produce a decent size head. Broccoli is extremely sensitive to becoming root bound. Once their roots have become cramped in a container, they rarely ever produce good heads later – even if given excellent growing conditions. I don't buy commercial broccoli seedlings any more, as they usually don't produce well for me.
I usually start my broccoli seedlings (and other plants in the cabbage family) in large pots – about 3” across and 4” deep. I then transplant them as soon as they have four adult leaves. Their roots have not yet started circling inside the containers. But it's critical that they be planted as soon as they are ready, and not be held in pots beyond the ideal planting time.
One year, I decided to hold onto a few broccoli seedlings, in case some of the transplants in my garden died young and needed replacing. Meanwhile, I repotted those young broccoli seedlings into larger 1-quart pots while I waited to see if they would be needed as replacements. Even though they were only held in these larger pots for two weeks, they still became slightly root-bound and they never grew well after they were planted in the garden.
These late transplants ended up growing only 1/4 of the size of the first transplants, and they only produced tiny 1″ heads. They also had much more damage from pests than my large, healthy plants.
3) Give the plants excellent growing conditions
Broccoli plants are heavy feeders, and need moist, nutrient-rich soil. If your soil has less than optimal fertility, then I recommend that you side-dress your plants with a slow-release organic fertilizer every 4 weeks – starting about 2 weeks after transplanting. Or you can provide a liquid fertilizer every couple of weeks or so.
If you'd like to see the difference that proper soil fertility can make, this article from a different website has an awesome photo, showing the difference in broccoli heads with regular soil, and well-fertilized soil: http://growabundant.com/fiesta-broccoli/
Broccoli also strongly prefers cool growing conditions – generally below 80 F. They usually make good fall crops, when they can mature in cooler weather. But if you want to try harvesting them in somewhat warmer weather, select a variety that can tolerate that. Just don't expect to harvest a good crop during hot weather.
Here's one resource for recommended varieties for different seasons from Johnny's Selected Seeds: Broccoli Planting Program / Comparison Chart
For the best broccoli production, give them the conditions they need to grow quickly and vigorously. Any set-backs (even temporary) – whether it's from dry soil, poor fertility, or becoming root-bound when young – can stunt them for life.
4) Give the plants enough space
To grow to their maximum size, broccoli plants need plenty of elbow room in the garden. Healthy, vigorous plants can easily grow three feet across – from one side of the plant to the other. If you want to mix several types of plants in one garden bed, keep other plants at least 18″ away from each of your broccoli plants, and be aware that large broccoli plants will shade nearby smaller plants.
I decided to conduct a spacing experiment with our spring broccoli in 2014. Most of my bed was planted at 18″ spacing for each plant. Part of the bed was spaced at 12″, per recommendations from Square Foot Gardening and Johnny's Selected Seeds.
I grew the variety “Arcadia”. It had been bred to produce large heads, and numerous side shoots. It tolerates cold very well, but doesn't like the heat. So it isn't the best variety for our spring crop, as the weather often gets pretty hot in mid-June when we harvest our spring broccoli – but it did well enough for us.
The plants grew very large. Most of them reached 3 feet across, so their leaves intermingled and overlapped each other. They seemed to tolerate short-term temps in the high 80's/low 90's fairly decently, though they would have done better in cooler temps.
Some of the plants spaced 12″ apart lost the competition for light and became very stunted, and only produced tiny 1″ heads.
The plants spaced 18″ apart didn't seem to stunt each other. However, unless I test wider spacing, I won't know how much more vigorously the plants could have grown with even more room.
The broccoli heads from the 18″ spacing averaged 1.3 pounds each! Beautiful heads, as you can see.
The heads from the 12″ spacing averaged just 8.5 ounces each. Much smaller than the others.
However, the yield per square foot was very similar – 8.5 oz for 12″ spacing, and 8.3 oz for 18″ spacing.
But the 18″ spacing only needed 40% of the plants needed for 12″ spacing. A 100 square foot bed with 12″ spacing needs 100 plants; the 18″ spacing would only need 40 plants. That's a major savings in starting or buying young transplants. So, my choice is to go with the wider spacing in my garden.
When to Harvest Broccoli
Have you always wondered when your broccoli head is ready to harvest? Pick your heads when the florets loosen up enough to be gently pressed apart. If they are too tight to spread when pressed, the head hasn't matured yet – it's certainly edible, but just hasn't reached maximum size yet.