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IN SEASON: Broccoli, the gem of a cool season vegetable garden

It may be hard to imagine as we head into Labor Day weekend with excessive heat warnings, but fall, with its cooler temperatures, is just around the corner. Fall brings not only cooler temperatures but a new growing season, and maybe even the easiest time to grow a garden in our year-round growing climate.

One of the shining stars of a fall garden in our region is broccoli. Broccoli grows best when temperatures are between 45 and 75 degrees. This makes fall the prime season for planting broccoli.

Choosing the right varieties

There are two types of broccoli: short season and long season. Short-season varieties grow from seed to finish in an average of 60 to 90 days. Long-season varieties take around 90 to 120 days. Either type will do well in our mild winter if started now.

One unique long season variety is called Romanesco. It does not have the club-shaped floret that standard broccoli varieties have. The best description of Romanesco broccoli is that it takes on the appearance of a fractal. Its large central head is very dense, and I find it holds its shape better when cooked than standard broccoli varieties. Romanesco does not put out side shoots as other broccoli does once the main has been picked.

Another interesting variety is “Violet Queen.” This variety produces a stunning bright purple head and would surely be a conversation piece on any Crudités platter during the holidays. When cooked, however, Violet Queen takes on the same green hue of most other broccoli.

If you would rather grow a more traditional variety of broccoli, look no further than Waltham 29. This variety was developed for cold tolerance and flavor. Waltham 29 produces a large dark head set atop a long tender stem with compact side shoots emerging from the sides. Waltham 29 is a short-season variety and you may be able to harvest several crops with succession planting through fall into early winter.

Planting and caring for broccoli

Before planting, amend the soil with compost or well-rotted manure. Plant two seeds to each seed tray cell at a depth of an inch. Give the soil an even watering to dampen and then keep the soil moist until transplanting outdoors. I like to use the gentle mist of a spray bottle.

Four to six weeks after the seedlings emerge, begin transitioning the starts to the outdoors in a protected area over a period of a week, adding more time outdoors each day.

Once the seedlings have completed the hardening off process, plant them at least 1 foot to 18 inches apart in an area that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sun. When planting, turn the seedlings on their side in your hand and gently ease them out of the seed tray. Make a depression in the garden bed soil twice as wide and as deep as the soil block the broccoli is in.

Gently place the seedling into the depression and backfill the soil firmly around the roots of the broccoli. Give the broccoli a good soaking and then lightly mulch, being sure to leave a 1-inch ring free of mulch around the stem of the plant.

Keep the soil moist, watering daily to every other day depending on the temperature. I can usually get away with watering once to twice a week in the winter with a 15-minute cycle through my driplines.

When winter arrives, watch the weather report for freeze warnings. If a freeze is coming, cover your broccoli with an old sheet or some burlap during the night. The cover should be removed during the day. Should you forget to cover the broccoli, it is likely that it will survive a freeze, depending on how cold it gets.

Pests, especially aphids, are a common foe of broccoli. You should closely inspect your plants daily to keep pest problems from getting out of control. When you see aphids, a strong blast with the hose is all that is usually needed to rid the plant of them. Be sure to check not just the head of the broccoli, but also the underside of leaves where they like to swarm. One way to avoid pests such as aphids is to choose broccoli varieties that have tight compact heads.

Harvesting and storing broccoli

Harvest broccoli while the central head is still tight and before it opens and produces small yellow blooms. If you miss that the prime harvesting window, the blooms are edible and are wonderful on salad. Harvest the central head and stem attached by cutting it from the plant. Leave as much stem on the head as you would like to eat. The more stem that you leave the less tender it will be.

After you harvest the main head on most varieties, you may start to see smaller side shoots develop. These can be picked and consumed in the same manner as the central head.

Fresh broccoli can be stored in the refrigerator for several days and will last longer if the stem is placed into a jar of water, similar to a bouquet of flowers.

For longer term storage chop, wash and blanch the broccoli in boiling water for 1 minute, and then spread on a tray to dry off a bit. After the broccoli has dried for at least half an hour, it can be spread on a covered baking sheet in the freezer, and then placed into a plastic freezer bag. This will help to keep the individual pieces from sticking together.

When the temperatures warm once again, and broccoli is no longer in season, you’ll be able to reach into your freezer and enjoy one of America’s most favored vegetables, and a fresh taste of winter, once more.

Terri Meehan is the Founder of Southern Nevada Gardening Association a regional group. She is a garden mentor and local farmer in Pahrump. Send questions or comments to her at sonvgarden@gmail.com

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