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Best expert advice on growing broccoli

Image: Broccoli Plants F1 Stromboli (12 plugs)

Broccoli is one of the most nutritious and versatile vegetables you can grow, and there’s a wealth of independent online advice to help you succeed. Here, we’ve brought together our favourite video tutorials, expert articles and Instagram posts to help you harvest delicious homegrown broccoli almost all year round. 

Whether you prefer to sow your own broccoli seeds or order broccoli plants, these expert tips will help you produce a plentiful crop that’s so much tastier than anything you can buy in the supermarket.

Contents

What’s the difference between purple sprouting broccoli and calabrese?

Broccoli (Organic) seeds - ‘Purple Sprouting Early’ from Suttons
Purple sprouting broccoli has thinner stems and smaller heads
Image: Broccoli (Organic) seeds – ‘Purple Sprouting Early’ from Suttons

Broccoli belongs to the brassica family, along with cauliflower, cabbages and kale. The main types of broccoli are purple sprouting and calabrese, and the distinction between the two is skilfully explained by Andrew over at Life on Pig Row. In brief, calabrese has thick stalks and large green heads and can crop from late winter through to autumn, while purple sprouting – what some people call true broccoli – has thinner stalks and smaller heads and grows much more slowly, taking many months from seed to harvest.

Best advice on sowing broccoli seeds

Broccoli seeds ‘Autumn Spear’ from Suttons
Successfully growing broccoli from seed is all about timing your crop
Image: Broccoli seeds ‘Autumn Spear’ from Suttons

A comprehensive video guide to sowing and growing the cold-resistant purple sprouting broccoli by ‘no dig’ gardener Charles Dowding explains that choosing the right variety is the key to timing your harvest, so always read the small print on your seed packet carefully. If calabrese is your broccoli of choice, this video from Charles looks at how to sow in winter for an early harvest, followed by a later sowing and summer crop.

Jack, of Jack Wallington Garden Design, has plenty of sowing tips in his very informative post on how to grow organic purple sprouting broccoli. Rather than using seed trays he suggests popping one or two of the largish seeds into pots of peat-free compost as soon as the frosts are gone, growing them in a sheltered spot outdoors or, in colder areas, in a polytunnel, greenhouse or on a windowsill until the weather warms up. 

The timing of your crop is a key consideration when you’re sowing broccoli seeds. Jessie Sheffield @plot_37 posted a picture of the beautiful broccoli she harvested for her lunch in February. A huge fan of purple sprouting varieties, she resolved to make an earlier spring sowing next year so she can also enjoy a harvest in December.

In his excellent guide on how to grow calabrese, John at Allotment & Gardens advises sowing seeds in rows 13mm deep and 30cm apart in a well-prepared seedbed between March and June for an autumn crop.

Karen and Rich at The Garden Smallholder point out that you need patience to grow purple sprouting broccoli. If you sow in February and plant out in late spring, then you may have to wait almost a full year to harvest, although the results are worth it, as illustrated by their impressive photo of a basketful of freshly cut broccoli stems.

Over @agentsoffield, Ade and Sophie make a point of sowing purple sprouting broccoli in March and April because they want to harvest it for the Christmas dinner table. Their smart plan worked amazingly well, as you can see from this lovely picture of a colander full of sensational stems. And they just keep on coming!

July and August are the best times to sow if you want winter cropping broccoli from the end of the year, according to Sue at The Bridge Cottage Way. But if you miss the boat, then you can always buy plugs or seedlings of either calabrese or purple sprouting to overwinter instead.

Taking time to prepare the soil in your seed bed is one of the handy tips in Huw Richards quick and easy guide to growing broccoli and other brassicas. He uses a heavy rake to create a fine tilth, removing any stones that could hamper germination.

Best advice on planting out broccoli

Broccoli Seeds ‘F1 Bellaverde Sibsey’ from Suttons
Tenderstem summer varieties can be harvested from July to October
Image: Broccoli Seeds ‘F1 Bellaverde Sibsey’ from Suttons

Because purple sprouting broccoli grows over the winter months, John at Allotment & Gardens says it’s best to choose a sheltered spot where the plants won’t get battered by cold winds.

Broccoli can thrive happily in a mixed bed. Naturally JB’s video demonstrates how to plant purple sprouting broccoli along the centre of a rectangular bed in the allotment, along with other brassicas and some salad leaves. He beds the broccoli plants into nice deep holes so they don’t get blown over and adds a bit of blood, fish and bone to nourish them over winter.

Claire at Claire’s Allotment also plants her broccoli plants in a bed with other brassicas. She intersperses the taller broccoli amongst low growing cabbages, tucking them well down into large holes, with soil right up to their lowest leaves.

It’s a good idea to grow individual broccoli plants in a container, according to Sam @the_hairy_horticulturist. He reckons it makes them easy to harvest as a cut and come again crop.

Mark at Mark’s Veg Plot likes all kinds of broccoli but is particularly fond of a tenderstem variety that’s akin to purple sprouting but grows fast and crops in summer. After sowing them in modules indoors, he’s careful to harden off seedlings by putting them outdoors during the daytime and bringing them indoors at night. Then he plants them deeply for good stability and root formation.

Hayley @hayleys_lottie_haven admitted she had trouble copingwith the time it takes for purple sprouting broccoli to mature. She also has a cautionary tale about calabrese; having left her seedlings in the pots for too long resulting in early flowering and very small heads. There’s much to learn from embracing our failures, and it’s incredibly generous of Hayley to share hers with others.

Best advice on how to deal with broccoli pests and diseases

Butterfly protection cage from Suttons
A butterfly protection cage is an ideal way to keep pests off your brassicas
Image: Butterfly protection cage from Suttons

All brassicas are prime targets for cabbage white butterflies and cabbage moths. To protect your broccoli plants without using chemicals, Liz Zorab of Byther Farm demonstrates a simple way to make protective tunnels for them using mesh, hose-piping and canes.

Covering plants with netting is the best way to keep cabbage whites off your broccoli, agrees Sue from @thebridgecottageway. But if any sneaky butterfly visitors do manage to get to your plants, check each day through the summer and remove any caterpillars and eggs you find.

To avoid slugs and snails munching your best seedlings, MT of The Pink Wheelbarrow shares a photo of her broccoli thriving in pots on her decking, away from the main snail trail. She also suggests using companion planting to divert hungry insects, positioning nasturtiums close to brassica plants to steer aphids and cabbage white butterflies away.

Good crop rotation is the way to keep club root at bay, according to Pumpkin Beth in her guide to growing broccoli. Started by spores in the soil, it damages root hairs, causes malformed stems and weakens the plant, Beth says club root is most common in heavily cultivated ground, like allotments. Checking the soil has a pH of 6-7 will also lessen the risk.

Meanwhile, Becky @sow_much_more swears by rhubarb as a lure for slugs and snails to keep them away from your broccoli and other tasty crops. She also advises popping a square of rhubarb stem in the same hole when you plant out broccoli. 

Sarah Taffe @diggingtheearth has found a quick, easy and organic solution for a minor problem with white fly attacking her broccoli plants. She soaks them with salty water, then rinses it off after an hour.

Best advice on harvesting broccoli

Broccoli ‘Monclano’ (22 plug plants) from Suttons
Harvesting the main head stimulates lots of side shoots with more delicious heads
Image: Broccoli ‘Monclano’ (22 plug plants) from Suttons

A practical video from Claire at Claire’s Allotment demonstrates how to cut your calabrese carefully to maximise your harvest from each plant. She advises using a sharp knife to slice off the main head when it’s full and firm. Through summer and autumn, smaller shoots and heads will then grow out from the sides of the plant.

In his comprehensive guide to growing broccoli, Simon at Garden of Eaden confirms it’s best to cut the central spear of your calabrese first – when it’s well formed, but before the individual flowers start to open. He reckons side shoots can then be picked for another four to six weeks.

Sam, @the_hairy_horticulturist says the longevity of your purple sprouting broccoli harvest is all about good management. Proudly displaying the freshly cut central head of one of his own plants, he says the more you harvest, the more shoots your plant will produce, giving you broccoli for the table for a few months. 

With such a wealth of tips from the experts to refer to, a succession of delicious calabrese and purple sprouting broccoli harvests is easily achievable through the year, whether your growing space is a dedicated bed on the allotment or a pot on the patio. 

Lead image: Broccoli Plants F1 Stromboli (12 plugs)

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