The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Feeding Broccoli

November 22nd, 2009 · 3 Comments · Posted in garden

Our broccoli: lots of foliage, no head

Our broccoli: lots of foliage, no head

Can I just say how disappointing it is to spend weeks and weeks growing plants from seeds–moving the plants from seed cells into the ground, watching them grow, fretting over every bug bite–and still not getting the desired results? Such is my frustration with broccoli. We do love this vegetable, but trying to produce big heads of it in our kitchen garden here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House, has been vexing.

Spring is too short here. The broccoli go to seed too quickly. In the fall, the sun travels to the south, disappearing too soon behind the house. But mostly, I think, I just don’t understand the feeding needs of broccoli. I work my own compost into the soil, but I fear this is not enough. I think more than anything my broccoli plants are just hungry.

I started this garden hoping to make it a self-contained operation, meaning, as little input from the outside world as possible. We garden intensively. We also compost intensively. But in the end, our plot and our kitchen scraps simply do not generate all the nutrients our plants need to grow properly, especially when they are not getting full sun.

What’s the solution? I collect coffee grounds from the neighborhood Starbucks and horse manure from a friendly riding stables to boost our compost. Do I simply add more of this compost to the soil supporting our broccoli? Or should Itake an even easier route and start feeding them with an organic fertilizer such as fish emulsion? If so, how much? How often?

Resorting to commercial fertilizers seems like too much of a compromise. But then I think of the enormous heads of broccoli selling at the local farmers market, and learning that they were grown with chemical fertilizers.

Starting a garden is easy. But as any experienced food gardener can tell you, learning to garden is a lifelong process.

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  • espringf

    Are you sure they need more food? What if, like potatoes, lots of fertilizer makes them overly-leafy, and not produce heads?

    As a consolation prize, you can eat your broccoli leaves like collards; they are actually more nutritious than the heads.

  • bronwyn

    I am suspecting that broccoli might want to be less well fed. Last year my broccoli was OK – nothing stunning, but OK. This year I have tiny heads that I can ring with my thumb and forefinger, and the only difference is that I spread a load of rich compost this year. I know that some plants try harder to breed when their nutrients are low (seeds get carried somewhere else which might be richer in nutrients), so maybe this is the case with broccoli also.

  • Ed Bruske

    Emily, I think it’s pretty well established that broccoli are “heavy feeders.” Exactly how that is to be addressed, however, is the question. But as you say, the leaves are a consolation prize in case the heads to form.

    Bronwyn, I think common practice is a good guide to follow as opposed to guess work. There may be a number of factors involved, such as the presence of other macro-nutrients besides nitrogen, or the micro-nutrient boron, or the spacing between plants. Keep trying seems to be good advice in this case.