I get this question all the time: how do you know when broccoli is ready to harvest? The answer is in your fingertips. You can tell when to harvest broccoli by touching the head, or bud (that’s what broccoli is, a cluster of flower buds), and squeezing.
If the head is firm and tight, and about the diameter that is expected for the variety you’ve grown, it’s ready to pick. If the head gives when you squeeze it, or there are spaces forming between florets, or even flowers opening, it’s past its prime. Never fear, though, you can still eat it, even if it’s flowering.
Let’s look at an example:
This head of broccoli was harvested a little too late. The head is no longer dome-shaped, but has an uneven texture and appearance. If you were to squeeze this, the buds would give under pressure, and you would feel space between the florets.
This head of broccoli, on the other hand, is just starting to loosen up, but still feels tight when squeezed. There is no movement or space between florets. It’s perfect and ready to harvest.
When to harvest
Many people expect large heads of broccoli, like the type sold in supermarkets, when they grow heirloom varieties. Most heirloom broccoli reach only 3-4 inches in diameter, however. That isn’t entirely true for all open pollinated varieties, though. Nutribud and Waltham grow larger, more like supermarket types. 4-6″ for Nutribud and 4-8″ for Waltham. The Rosalind purple broccoli we grew this season has given us 7-8″ heads. Very impressive for an heirloom.
The bottom line is to consult your seed packet for 2 things: days to maturity and expected size. You can always mark your calendar when you plant broccoli to help you know when to start looking for harvest-ready plants.
Sprouting broccoli has a different growth habit than its cousin. You’ll find smaller florets sprouting throughout the plant. Use the same technique to harvest these: touch and sight. Feel for firmness, and harvest before the buds loosen.
Broccoli is somewhat of a factory plant like kale and collards, which keep producing all season long. Don’t pull the whole plant, because once you cut off broccoli’s center head, side shoots will begin to appear.
Side shoots keep going for weeks, and after you hit the point where you can’t keep up, the flowers open and bees come to pollinate. We inevitably let our broccoli go to flower every year to keep the pollinator population happy.
Cut the center head with a sharp knife of pruning shears below the top sets of leaves. That will encourage side shoots to form. Store your harvest in plastic bags in the crisper, or in glass lock-lid containers in the fridge.