By: Amy Grant
If you’re new to growing broccoli, at first it might seem like a waste of garden space. Plants tend to be large and form a single large center head, but if you think that’s all there is to your broccoli harvest, think again.
Once the main head has been harvested, lo and behold, the plant will begin growing broccoli side shoots. Harvesting broccoli plant side shoots should be done in the same manner as harvesting the main head, and side shoots on broccoli are just as delicious.
There is no need to grow a special type of broccoli for side shoot harvesting. Pretty much all varieties form broccoli plant side shoots. The key is to harvest the main head at the correct time. If you allow the main head to begin to yellow before harvesting, the plant will go to seed without forming side shoots on the broccoli plant.
Broccoli plants produce a large center head that should be harvested in the morning and cut at a slight angle, along with two to three inches (5 to 7.6 cm.) of stalk. Harvest the head when it is a uniform green color with no hint of yellow.
Once the main head has been severed, you will notice the plant growing broccoli side shoots. Broccoli plant side shoots will continue to be produced for several weeks.
Harvesting broccoli side shoots is the same as harvesting the initial large head. Sever side shoots on broccoli in the morning with a sharp knife or shears, again along with a couple of inches of stalk. Broccoli plant side shoots can be harvested for several weeks and are used the same as regular broccoli.
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Three years ago I happened to have a sharp knife in my hand at just the right moment, and ever since then we have enjoyed better-quality broccoli in our home.
Broccoli is rated ahead of cauliflower in most home food gardens because it is a cut-and-come-again vegetable. One harvest can follow another all season long, as the seed catalogs are quick to tell us.
But the size, and even the qualitY, of the side heads that develop after the first head is cut can go downhill rapidly unless the gardener does some disciplined pruning. That's right, broccoli responds to pinching, cutting, or shearing out the excessive growth as dramatically as your favorite apple tree - or maybe even more so.
I discovered the value of pruning broccoli quite by accident. I was inspecting the garden one evening, and happened to have a sharp knife in my hand when I came across the broccoli. Over the weeks that followed the first harvest, the plants had become a mass of closely growing stalks. Obviously, any new side shoots would not readily make it up through that tangled mess.
So I bent down and cut away much of the growth, opening up the plants the way one would a fruit tree. The effect was moderately dramatic. Tiny and somewhat stringy florets gave way to side heads that were larger and more tender - about the size of a half-dollar coin.
Last season this pruning was done even more relentlessly, and a lot earlier as well. The side heads enlarged to about a third or more of the original head.
From time to time I have mentioned this pruning experience to other gardeners , and the idea has always been greeted with moderate surprise. So it was with some satisfaction that I recently read of a gardener who takes the same approach.
An article in Country Journal magazine by Nancy Bubel, whose gardening and garden writing I hold in high regard, quotes the experience of Dr. Peter Cunningham of Guilford, Conn.
Dr. Cunningham, whose broccoli pruning is more disciplined than my own, takes the main head, waits a few days, and then harvests the first crop of mature side heads. After that, the earnest pruning begins. First, he removes all of the small side shoots that have already developed into mature, but tiny (an inch or less across), broccoli heads. These, he says, will never grow any larger.
''Throw them away or add them to the soup,'' Dr. Cunningham suggests. The remaining leaf-covered buds, usually on one- or two-inch stems at this stage, hold promise of developing into much larger side heads.
''Three or four of the one-to two-inch shoots are left, and the rest pinched out. And I mean all the rest,'' says Dr. Cunningham. ''If you leave eight, they will make small heads, but if you leave three or four, they will develop into sizable heads.''
Other tiny stems keep forming, and the thinning process is continued throughout the season.
Often a new side head will develop near the base of the old stem and send up a vigorous shoot as a result of the pruning that later produces many more side heads of its own. Dr. Cunningham also removes some of the leaves as the plants become bushy. This gives developing shoots more space in which to grow.
Broccoli likes warm soil, but resents hot soil. Thus I apply a thick mulch to the broccoli bed in summer, which seems to help the plants produce moderately well even during the dog days of August. And while good initial soil preparation will frequently carry the plants clear through to frost, a side dressing of fertilizer, placed in a ring around the base of each plant midway through the season, is also beneficial. Or you can periodically apply liquid fertilizer, a compost, or manure ''tea.''
While on the subject of pruning plants, don't forget you can get secondary heads from cabbage too. After cutting out the main head, the cabbage will start forming several buds or miniature heads at the base of each remaining leaf. I remove all but two of these buds to get a second harvest of modest cabbage heads.
Cabbage also responds well to a mulch and a midsummer feeding.
Broccoli (Brassica oleracea) is a vegetable from the cabbage family and a cool-season crop rich in vitamins A and D. Harvesting broccoli at the right stages is important for the sweetest flavors and crispest textures. Cutting broccoli off the stem at the wrong time -- when it is over-matured -- results in a bitter taste. The main head, located at the top of the plant, is harvested first, encouraging smaller side shoots from the axils of the leaves to develop.
Select a broccoli plant that has a fully formed 3- to 6-inch main head with tight and firm buds, making sure to harvest the broccoli before the flowers start to bloom. Cut the main stem 6 inches below the top of the main head with a sharp knife, leaving 6 inches of stem attached to the main head.
Put the unwashed broccoli in a perforated plastic bag. Keep the bag in the vegetable crisper compartment of the refrigerator for up to five days.
Check broccoli side shoots each day as they develop. Harvest side shoots when they are full and the flower buds are tight, cutting a few inches below the flower head with a sharp knife to leave some stem attached.
Last Updated: January 11, 2021 References
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Broccoli is rich in dietary fiber, Vitamin C and Vitamin K, and has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory benefits. It is part of the cole crop family (Brassica oleracea), which also includes cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and collard greens. Broccoli is ready to be harvested 50-100 days after it has been planted, depending on the variety. It is important that you have the appropriate knowledge and tools so you'll be prepared to pick your broccoli as soon as it's ready!
Broccoli's reputation as one of the world's healthiest vegetables still rings true despite the fact that it is both one of the most hated yet most well-loved vegetables in our country. Everyone has an opinion: nutritionists, presidents and celebrities share their experiences with it. Broccoli gets a lot of flak for being "yucky", tasteless, or difficult to chew. Some people can't stomach it raw, as a crudité. Others can't stand it cooked and many say it has a strong flavor and therefore a strong odor as it cooks.
Despite the mixed reactions, broccoli maintains the royal status as one of the most popular and most nutritious foods available. In fact, broccoli is full of so many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that it is hailed as one of the top 10 superfoods.
I used to be one of those who believed that cooked broccoli was too strong and too mushy. I refused to even touch the vegetable, until one day I tasted bright-green broccoli that was tender and succulent, yet still maintained some crispness, and had a mild, almost sweet, addictive flavor. I was hooked. Through research and experimentation, I discovered why so many people refuse to eat this tasty vegetable.
The secret to getting your children and family members (and maybe you!) eating broccoli is to NOT overcook this beauty. Cooked broccoli should NOT be pale green in color, but bright-green with a crisp, yet tender texture.
Health Benefits of Broccoli
Broccoli is truly a super-food based on its many nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Broccoli is high in Vitamins A, D, K, C, B6, folic acid, calcium, zinc, magnesium, manganese, fiber and even protein. Pound for pound, broccoli contains more protein than a steak. It is also rich in beta-carotene, which aids eye health, and antioxidants that fight aging.
Just some of the main benefits of broccoli:
Broccoli can be eaten raw, steamed, grilled, roasted, or pureed. You name it, and you can eat it that way! It can be served as a snack, side dish, vegetable, main dish, salad, soup, and dessert (okay, am not sure about a dessert). My favorite form is lightly steamed until crisp and tender, with a dollop of butter and salt and pepper. You can even eat broccoli sprouts which are known for their cancer-fighting properties. Broccoli sprouts have 50-100% more Sulforaphane, a cancer-fighting substance, than mature broccoli. Eating broccoli sprouts is like eating many mature broccoli plants a day without all the crunching! Win-Win! I enjoy broccoli sprouts on my salads, in wraps, or on a sandwich, and aim for ½ cup of sprouts every day.
Steam broccoli for 4-6 minutes until bright green in color, and just tender yet crisp. Top with a slab of butter or coconut oil before serving. My family eats it up with none left! I always make sure broccoli is on our dinner table 3-4 times a week!
Growing and Harvesting Broccoli
Broccoli is fairly easy to grow depending on where you live. I have lived in a variety of climates, from Minnesota to Alabama, and have learned how to be successful with growing broccoli in any growing climate. Broccoli is a cool-weather vegetable. Growing broccoli from seed is fairly simple. Putting plants in the ground late summer and late fall work best here in the Deep South. This gives me a fall crop, and an early spring crop. What I appreciate about broccoli is that after harvesting the main head, it continues to put out side-shoots over the summer (in cooler climates). When we lived in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, I would put out plants in early spring, and after harvesting the main head, six plants would give one to two meals a week all summer just from side shoots. But here in Alabama, the plants are done by June and have to be pulled up.
For proper planting times in your area, see our Vegetable Garden Planting Calendar
For a complete guide to growing Broccoli and other vegetables, see our Books of Vegetables Collection
Broccoli is a powerhouse in the garden and on the table. If you haven't tried growing it yet, give it a try this summer or fall. Not only is it tasty, but prolific in the garden.
So, eat up and enjoy the many health benefits. Be creative and learn new ways to serve broccoli. I dare you!Veronica Worley, MS, FDN-P, CHHC, is an avid gardener, who has gardened for nutrition over the past two decades. Having studied nutrition and now working as an FDN-P (Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner), she has taught herself how to garden for the best nutrition, and has gone on to teach others the same. She has developed an edible landscape in her yard, and intentionally grows vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs for medicine and nutrition. She is in the process of writing her first book on Using Vegetables, Herbs and Flowers to Heal Your Body of Chronic Illness.
As an FDN-P, she helps men and women age gracefully and beautifully by getting to the root cause of belly fat, energy loss, hormone and mineral imbalance. She strongly believes that mineral imbalance is the root cause of most chronic symptoms and disease today. Using functional lab testing, food and lifestyle changes, one can overcome most diseases naturally without medication. And she teaches others how to grow their own food to help balance minerals in one's daily food and lifestyle.
Maximum Broccoli In One Season
Most gardeners don’t get maximum productivity from their broccoli crop. They harvest the main heads when they mature, then pull the plants out of the garden. To increase the yield from each broccoli plant fertilize the plant with some dilute liquid fertilizer just before the main harvest and then wait for the plants to produce additional side sprouts after the main head is cut from the stem. Most broccoli varieties will normally produce a central head 8 to 10 inches across. After it is harvested, they will produce numerous tender side shoots--each 1 to 4 inches across--for as long as six weeks afterward. That equals the amount of food yielded by original head. This is maximum productivity.
Do not make the mistake of waiting too long to harvest broccoli. Broccoli heads are actually clusters of immature florets making up the flower of the plant where it eventually produces seeds. If you wait too long, that thick cluster of blue-green buds will gradually separate and the individual florets begin to open and turn into yellow flowers. The window of opportunity for harvesting broccoli is about three to four days. Broccoli tastes best when it’s matured and harvested in cool weather with cool nights. Try to harvest it before daytime temperatures hit 80°F.
Cut broccoli in the cool morning with a sharp knife. Cut the main head cleanly off down the stalk 6 to 8 inches to encourage maximum side shoot production where the leaves join the main stalk lower down. If you cut even lower on the stalk, taking some of the potentially productive leaf nodes, the remaining nodes will send out more vigorous side shoots. While there may be fewer new productive shoots from the stalk, the heads that form on them are larger. Four to six cuttings are possible from each main broccoli stalk for up to six weeks after harvesting the main head.
Important Note - Cut off the side shoots to get more production. Even if you don’t use all the side shoots, it is important to harvest them. Otherwise, the plant stops production completely.
Because the spaces between the florets on broccoli heads make a convenient hiding place for tiny caterpillars and aphids, some of them invariably find their way into the kitchen. Plunge harvested broccoli into warm water with a little white vinegar added, and any stowaways should float to the top. Never soak the shoots more than 15 minutes use only warm water, because hot water destroys nutrients and cold water doesn’t clean as well.
Broccoli will keep fresh in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, but the longer it is stored, the tougher the stems get and the more nutrients it loses. Either can, freeze or pickle excess harvest. Freezing best preserves broccoli's flavor, color and nutritive qualities. Separate the large heads into bite-sized chunks with a bit of stem and cut the remaining lengths of stem into 1-inch pieces. Blanch the pieces in boiling water for three minutes, plunging them promptly into icy water for three minutes to stop the cooling process. This will kill any harmful bacteria, and allow the broccoli to retain its firm texture and bright green color. Drain them then store the broccoli in plastic freezer bags. Frozen broccoli retains its quality for up to six months.
Do you have a gardening question? Ask Nancy