We like to eat. And the fresher the food, the better the eating, so my wife, Chris, and I grow a lot of our own table fare. And because our appetite doesn’t abate in winter, we like cold-hardy crops like broccoli. In fact, broccoli survives the occasional snow and frost — we’ve harvested it on New Year’s Day in our zone 7 garden.
We harvest our broccoli just before dinner and cook it simply: steamed or stir-fried, served with butter and lemon or a swig of soy sauce. We’re not thinking about broccoli’s payload of vitamins A and C and cancer-fighting compounds — we just enjoy the flavor, the color and the crunch.
The warm weather of late summer/early fall helps broccoli to establish itself and then mature slowly as the weather cools off. Depending on the varieties, your timing, your choice of season-extenders and the whims of Mother Nature, you could be harvesting broccoli over a one-to-three month period in late fall/early winter.
Spring-planted broccoli has the unfortunate habit of maturing all at once when we get hot spring weather. Can you eat a dozen broccoli heads in a week? Fortunately, broccoli freezes well.
Broccoli grows best in temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit but can stand snow, frosts and temps in the 20s for a few days. They handle the cold better with a little help from you, the gardener:
- Moist roots stand the cold better than dry ones, so give plants a good soaking before the thermometer bottoms out.
- Bed the transplants — we call them “brocclings” — with a dose of organic fertilizer and some compost. Healthy, cold-hardy vegetables produce their own natural “anti-freeze.”
- Soil holds heat overnight. Capture that heat with a nighttime covering of a cloth sheet or blanket.
- You can amplify the warmth of the sun with Reemay (see Baby Greenhouses) or a cold frame, which both act like mini-greenhouses. Learn more about these and other season-extenders, from Eliot Coleman’s book Four Season Harvest (Chelsea Green, 1999).
Broccoli’s few pests are easily fended off. Aphids may attack, but a misting of insecticidal soap on the morning of a sunny day dissolves their waxy coating, allowing the sun to dry the aphids to a crisp. Additionally, a dusting of Bt bacteria, which only hurts caterpillars, will sicken and kill those pests without harming birds, bees, ladybugs or mammals. Season extenders also act as physical barriers to keep bad critters away.
Many varieties of broccoli are available, and you should plant more than one. Varieties like Packman develop more edible side shoots, while an heirloom like De Cicco is more productive than many hybrids. Others like Green Comet mature quickly, and a slow-growing heirloom like Purple Sprouting spreads out the fall harvest.
So try a few varieties of broccoli this spring to get your bearings, and apply your new broccoli knowledge to planting a bigger crop in the fall. Then, maybe we can all harvest broccoli next New Year’s Day.