When and How To Harvest Broccoli and Cauliflower

You’d think that the hard part would be getting the seeds to germinate and coaxing that little seedling to grow. But time and again I see gardeners stumble just at the finish line: harvesting.

All season long plants have been tended and, just at the big, edible moment of payoff, the gardener hesitates: “Is it ready? Should I wait? Will it get bigger? Am I too late?”

Nothing seems to stump new gardeners more than the harvesting of broccoli and cauliflower. This makes sense, really. Most of the fruiting “vegetables” like tomatoes and peppers turn color when they are ready to be harvested so there’s a strong visual clue. Most of the leafy vegetables can be harvested at many sizes and still give you a great result: baby lettuce = yum! Head lettuce = yum!

But with broccoli and cauliflower you are really playing a game of chicken with the plant. You are trying to let the head grow as big as possible without going over and into the flowering stage, when it turns tough and bitter.

Funny, It Doesn’t Look Like A Flower

That’s just how I like my broccoli.

To figure out when to harvest, it helps to know a little about what you are actually eating when you eat broccoli or cauliflower. It’s a bit easier to explain with broccoli – and I have a bunch in my garden right now so I can show what I’m describing – so I’ll use that example, but everything I’m about to say holds true for both vegetables.

Broccoli is a member of the brassica family that has been bred to make a giant succulent flower head. It is that flower head that we eat. The teeny little green beads that make up a head of broccoli are called florets. Each one of those florets wants to develop into a pretty yellow flower and make seed. If broccoli is given enough time, it will grow a big afro of yellow flowers.

My kinda bouquet.

You want to have eaten all those florets long before that happens because when a broccoli plant (or any plant, actually) goes into it’s flowering and seed making stage, certain changes happen to the plant that cause it to toughen up and get serious about survival. Leaves get bitter, stalks get tough and woody and the broccoli spends a lot of money on onsies and diapers as it prepares itself for plant parenthood.

Not Too Old, Not Too Small, But Just Right

So, how do you harvest a head of broccoli when it is full-size but before it goes too far?

First, look at size. Different varieties have different natural mature sizes, and like everything in gardening there is a lot of potential variability based on growing conditions. In my garden, I’m happy with a main head of broccoli that is 6 to 7 inches across. That’s a very respectable head of broccoli.

All else being equal, broccoli and cauliflower will make heads in accordance to their leaf growth before they start heading. In other words, big broccoli plants with big healthy leaves will make big broccoli heads and stunted little broccoli plants will make stunted little broccoli heads. Broccoli plants that are bred for bigger frames will tend to make larger heads than “compact spacing” type varieties.

These are nice big, healthy broccoli plants so I expect larger heads from them.

This is why you must never, ever, EVER buy a broccoli or cauliflower transplant that has already started to form a head. You might think, “ahh, that’s so cute! An inch-wide cauliflower plant. I’ll get that one, it’s got a great headstart, so to speak.”


That broccoli or cauliflower is, for all intents and purposes, done. It has already initiated it’s heading up as, essentially, an infant. It will not get bigger. If you buy that transplant you are paying probably $80 a pound for button-sized broccoli. You are wasting your money.

Full size, healthy broccoli and cauliflower plants will start by making a small head but that head will get bigger. Many a new gardener, myself included, has panicked when they see their first teeny little cauliflower or broccoli head and thought, “Oh no! What did I do? I ruined it! It’s teeny.”

Only just beginning…give this one time

Web searches will say things like, “broccoli and cauliflower will button (produce small unusable heads) when under stress,” adding to the feeling of panic and garden failure. So, the typical new gardener reaction is to cut off the teeny baby broccoli head in an attempt to “salvage something…anything!” from their plant.

Tragedy. That’s basically broccoli head infanticide. The right response is…patience. Those little broccoli heads start little but they will get bigger…up to supermarket size or larger, if they are happy and growing well. So just watch and wait.

Part of a full-size head (upper left) compared to a baby broccoli head (lower right)

Look At The Florets

There will be a point, a several day (or even several week, depending on the variety) window, when the broccoli or cauliflower crown hits full size and stops growing but starts to loosen up. The individual florets will get fatter and then will spread apart slightly and take on a less tightly packed quality.

Loose but not yet yellowing – pick now!

This is the ideal time to harvest. This is slightly later than what you will see for store bought broccoli, but since your broccoli isn’t going to be on a truck for a week you can maximize size a bit more than the commercial growers can without sacrificing quality.

At this point the head is as big as it’s going to be and still tastes great and is juicy and tender. Let it go a bit longer, maybe 2-3 more days – possibly a week if you have a broccoli with good field holding ability – and the florets will start to get a distinct, loose, spread out look. Those green beads will start to look like fat little flower buds, because this is exactly what they are. They will seem to elongate, moving to a more oblong shape.

Watch for spreading out florets and signs of yellowing.

At this point the broccoli is still good eating quality but is moving rapidly towards flowering and the further along it gets the tougher and more mealy it will be. The florets will get progressively looser, and may start to take on a yellow-tinged look in places. I never like my broccoli to get to this point, it’s just too far.

One day a few of the flower buds will open into a cruciferous yellow flower. Last call, dude. If you have not yet done so, for God’s sake, harvest your broccoli now. It won’t be the most delectable crudite on the tray but it will still probably be alright compared to a two-week-old grocery store specimen.

Once your broccoli head starts actively flowering, you can still eat it – it’s not poisonous or anything – it just won’t taste the same as it would have a few weeks prior. If you do opt to harvest broccoli in flower, consider cooking it like you might flowering kale or mustard greens because it will be stronger than younger broccoli would be.

After The Harvest

If you were a commercial market grower, after you cut the head off all your broccoli plants (at more or less the same time because labor is expensive) you would rip up everything and replant. As a backyard grower, you shouldn’t do that.

Cut the broccoli head off, and cut it fairly low. Give yourself 6 or 8 inches of stalk to go with the head. (Hey, I’m still talking broccoli, don’t be a pervert.) Then, let the broccoli continue to grow and it will form side-shoots. Certain varieties, like Umpqua and Waltham 29, are more prone to continued side shoot production and those varieties are good for home gardeners.

If harvested when still tender, the stalk can be peeled and used in slaws or sauteed. It’s fantastic.

These side-shoots are the plants attempt to make seed. Many varieties will work really hard to fulfill their quest to become parents by sending out dozens of side-shoots. They aren’t nearly as big as the central broccoli head – more broccolini sized – but you can get a good handful of them off a few plants if conditions are good. Harvest side-shoots the same way you harvest the central head but note that they will run to flowering faster.

A side-shoot growing after the main head has been harvested.

Eventually, even the most tenacious broccoli plant will give up and stop putting out usable-sized side shoots. This is when you harvest the leaves. Broccoli leaves are practically indistinguishable from collards or the scotch-type kales in most cooked-greens recipes. You can substitute to your heart’s content.

If you have a lush garden and you aren’t interested in eating broccoli leaves because you are too busy stuffing yourself with cherry tomatoes and figs, I recommend ripping up the plant and making a chicken pinata with it. Shake off excess dirt, tie a string around the plant where the stem meets the root system and hang the broccoli plant upside-down in your chicken run somewhere. Chickens love broccoli and will have a blast pecking at the leaves.

Are there any vegetables that you are unsure about when to harvest? I always have to double check specific herbs. Is it when they are in flower? Just before flower? But that’s what I love about gardening – there’s always something to learn.


  1. says

    Lovely clear instructions – thank you!

    My problem with broccoli is keeping the aphids away. Once they’re on the plant, it’s pretty much impossible to get them all washed off – they cluster in the broccoli florets and tend to look just like little buds themselves. Any ideas?


    • says

      Hard, definitely. Those green ones are hard to see in there. If possible, avoid aphid infestation in the first place with trap crops of nasturtiums and plantings that encourage lots of nymph ladybugs (any of the umbel herbs in flower is great). Once you notice a colony building up, soapy water (I just put a few drops of eco friendly soap and a few drops of olive or – if I have it – soybean oil in a spray bottle filled with water) can help knock them back, but they are a PITA because they are hard to spot. If the broc is still growing well, I just do the best I can with soapy water, watch out for signs of leaf or bud distortion, and let it go as long as possible. They I soak those heads in cold water with soap. That kills the aphids and they generally float out. A few changes of water and I can get the heads clean. But, yeah, far rather not have them in the first place. I get woolly aphids on my kale with some regularity no matter what I do so I feel your pain.

    • says

      Hi All, I know that these posts are a little old, but I have to share a trick that I discovered to keep aphids away from the broccoli and cabbage. When the plant is still small, get some bokashi bran and sprinkle it around the plant on the soil. It keeps all the bugs and disease away from your veggies.

    • says

      Yes, I had same problem a couple years ago, as well with the green looper worms, so hard to see, but so destructive. How I solved problem is with preying mantis, and I came across a few dozen hatchlings on ornamental bushes in front of house, and simply transplanted them to my garden, amazingly, didn’t see another pest the whole summer growing season. As a bonus, no tomato horrn catiplillars either, strange, had tons last year.

      Happy Pest Free Gardening,

  2. Lady Banksia says

    I always have aphid problems too… I’m planning on trying the marigold trick for the border of my beds this year… also will interplant to the extent that I can – the broc/caul leaves will most likely shade out the flowers after awhile, but the borders should still be safe territory. They’re going in this week…hopefully.

    • Carolyn Sederwall says

      I have planted many flowers in my greenhouse that bugs hate. I’m going to plant cat nip next because the list of bugs that hate it is longer then any other plant. I’ve never had a mature flowering cat nip because the cat’s have always rolled in it until they killed it but in the cat free greenhouse I should be able to get myself a respectable, beautiful bush and discourage pests at the same time. I also have a wonderful little hen who comes in with me and eats only bugs and lays me a beautiful egg in the broccoli bed. Aside from the obvious benefit of pest control, the flowers make my greenhouse lush and beautiful.

  3. says

    Great instructions! I know pears are another one that people have trouble with. Though the trick is easy. If you rotate the fruit horizontally and it pops off without a tug it’s ready to pick. If you leave them on the tree they get mushy and gross. After harvest put them on your counter to continue to ripen.

  4. says

    Another tip — always cut the main broccoli stalk at an angle. If it’s cut completely horizontally, it will trap overnight dew and cause the stalk to rot (this is especially important in areas with overnight fog or humidity). This enables you to keep your plant healthy while you’re harvesting all of those nice sideshoots for weeks and weeks to come…

  5. says

    Love this, but I’m kind of giving up on broccoli for the aphid reason, too. I do spray them with oil/soap/water mix, but I find once they inhabit the little forest of broccoli buds, they are damn near impossible to see and remove. Once I rinsed a head over ten times, with dead aphids floating out every time, and finally just gave up and tossed it in the compost. I know it shouldn’t bother me so much, but I just can’t stomach the idea of eating aphids along with my broccoli.

  6. bryttni says

    love this! our issue was that we didn’t know we should’ve mulched, and we had to battle flowering tiny broccolinis all summer long! ): we are now finally getting bigger than coin-sized florets.
    we use neem oil on our garden and have not had any aphid issues (:

  7. Lori Cochran says

    Thank you sooooo much, this is on my list for next year, 2nd round. Deck was too hot, moved one the garden, bugs ate it. Left one on the deck, desimated over night by some nasty moth caterpillars. Caterpillars showed up AFTER my landlord sprayed all my wasps! They were HELPING keep the millers and moths at bay! They were also very friendly and polite, says my son formerly terrified of wasps/hornets/ and general stingy time bugs. So moral of the story, stay calm and quiet around your waspys and they actually help your garden!

    • says

      Lori, I had a bald faced hornets nest in the yard last year. With two small kids it made me nervous, but they did a great job of keeping the caterpillars down.

  8. Tiff says

    You wrote this because of me didn’t you? I can see how it went…..After reading my panic filled email earlier this year you thought ” Dang, that chicks, panic and murder of premature broccoli would make a kick ass blog subject” Well it did, you where right, again! LOL!

  9. queen of string says

    I was good on the harvesting thing, but mine ran to flowers really quickly. Managed to get the hang of that and harvested a bunch of little ones. I didnt know you could eat the leaves, so I’ll get right on that!

    We grew cauliflower from seed this year, lovely big, healthy plants with no heads whatsoever, no idea what we did wrong, but very frustrating.

  10. Wendy says

    I’m new to your website but enjoyed your help with broccoli. I didn’t know about eating the leaves either. Also, our wellness group has a website, From Earth to Health. This morning the following post was listed that may be of interest to those with “bug issues”…enjoy and THANKS AGAIN~
    Erin Lahey posted in From Earth to Health
    Erin Lahey 8:30am Sep 18
    Looks like the hatchery inadvertently gave us two roosters. We’d ordered all hens. Anyone want a rooster? No cost. I’d be happy to trade for hens, also, if you have them, but only if they are a year old or less.

    Also, we have extra ducks. We have three males and two females. I want to get down to three ducks total, so will part with either two hens or two drakes. $10 if you take the two hens, $0 if you take two drakes. We bought the ducks for pest control in the garden and orchard. They’re better than chickens for that because they eat a wider variety of pests, including slugs, which chickens won’t touch. They are Khaki Campbells, which, if you are looking for laying hens, are the most prolific of ducks, and they lay more than nearly all breeds of chickens. The eggs are larger than chicken eggs with a slightly firmer texture. They are praised for their baking qualities, as the extra protein in them gives the baked goods extra loft.

  11. Mary W. says

    I’d like to know more about when to harvest onions. I read articles about leaves browning and falling over, but then mine never do. They grow into a huge, thick onion ‘sword’, while the onion at the base is still happily growing larger. Is this a varietal issue, a northwest/climate issue, my fault somehow, etc? At some point, the onion seems to suddenly liquify, and I know I’ve waited too long. I’m also not 100% sure if I’m planting my different varieties right, at the right times. Or too shallow, or too deep. :)

    What I do know is that if I don’t pick them at all, they seem to die off but many come back in the spring. Which confuses me even more, because the ‘planting’ time is different when nature does it for you. Really, I don’t know much at all.

  12. says

    I’ve totally left mine too long before harvest, and those kind of flowery ones are great for freezing and later use in casseroles or soups. The freeze/thaw cycle seems to help with a bit of the woodiness. Or that’s what I tell myself, anyway…

  13. Peter Burer says

    Thanks for the straight up information. Just harvested some broccoli and cauliflower for the first time. Saw some flowering heads on the broccoli and didn’t know what that meant. After reading your blog, I ended up tossing it in the compost pile, but had others to harvest. This is my second season of growing the garden, and trying out different crops, which seem to be doing better than last year. Having trouble with worms in the cucumbers, but it looks like everything else is doing great. Moto: keep an eye on the garden, because if you don’t , the bugs will ;-)

  14. says

    Thanks…we were just driving home, and though “gee, we should probably get us some broccoli for dinner, it’s about ready.”
    Glad I looked…I think I probably have weeks of growing left, based on what you’re saying above.

  15. mary nightingale says

    Great stuff, clear instructions that even i can follow. Someone gave me 6 very samll caulis to have a go with. So far I have managed not to kill them. They are in shallow but wide containers as I dont have a garden as such, and I have found lacing the top of hte soil with sharp builders sand has kept them slug free so far. I also am having a go at growing spuds, strawberries and toms, again in containers but having no experience I am finding it all rather exciting / nerve wracking. Lucky I found this site though, as I will be referring to it more and more xx

  16. says

    Thanks for the clear information! I’m trying to get on a higher level with my gardening and yes, broccoli confuses me- but it’s my favorite!

    Shannon (Editor @ Foodiebitch.net)

  17. Costa says

    This was a fantastic article! My brocolli is almost ready to harvest and the eating advice on the leaves is great. I shall use some next week!

  18. Ian Jackson says

    Thank you so much, very useful in regard to my broc. I was just at the point of pulling the plants post initial deflowering and decided to do a quick google first. Plus, I can’t believe I’ve gone through life without coming across the word rutabaga, so thanks for adding to my personal lexicon too. The pervert innuendo snip made me smile.

  19. says

    Hi! Great article! I was just wondering if I’m supposed to tie the leaves up over the floret at some point? I was told to do this, but can’t find much online about it.
    Thanks for your time,

  20. Terry and Leslie says

    This is our first year growing broccoli, and these instructions are much appreciated!
    Now it’s time to begin chopping broccoli!

  21. kieron says

    Thanks, looks like we caught our fist two at exactly the right time, they look good too. Wonder why people would use pesticides. Can’t wait to munch through them tomorrow @ dinner.

  22. Mike V says

    My broccoli florets were about an inch to two inches in size, when I went away for a week, and when I came back, the florets were still the same size, but there were now huge yellow flower stems from all my broccoli plants. How do you get them to grow larger than an inch or two before flowering???

  23. lori degarmo says

    Thank you so much for the instructions on harvesting broccoli. I have six big, beautiful broccoli plants in my small, backyard garden this year. They all have small heads right now, so I now know to wait until they get a little bigger and start to loosen up. The leaves have some holes, which I’m thinking are due to the white butterflies I see flitting about the broccoli area, but they’re otherwise pretty healthy and the heads look good, but still compact and smallish. Your instructions are so clear, not to mention quite humorous! Thanks again for the excellent tips!

  24. Derek says

    Thanks for the instructions. For Grace and the aphids comment. If you have any rhubarb try soaking te rhubarb leaf in water then spray that water on your plants affected by aphids. It works. Most people don’t know that rhubarb leaves are poisonous but work very well at killing off aphids but leaves no trace on the plant especially when washing durum harvest. As a note don’t let your pets drink the water as it can possibly hurt them. Just my tip. Thanks again.

  25. Sarah says

    Just curious, as this is my first time growing broccoli…is it typical for the color to be light green? Or will it darken when it becomes time to harvest? Based on your recommendations, I would guess that it’s going to be ready to harvest within the week, but the color seems very light compared to what I’m used to seeing in the store. I appreciate your helpful advice! Thanks!

  26. says

    I started my first garden this year and it has been a huge learning experience but so incredibly exciting when I see things successfully grow and thrive!! I’ve got a huge squash plant (which I pollinated myself, due to lack of bees), cucumbers, cauliflower (will probably have to go ahead and harvest now, since it’s starting to get too hot out again), even an asparagus bed!! My broccoli went to flower early on b/c I planted too late in the spring and didn’t realize they needed cooler temps. Earlier today I learned that I have to tie the cauliflower leaves around the head to prevent from yellowing in the sun and heat. As I said, a learning experience! Now I am getting ready to plant some carrots and Swiss Chard and I cannot wait to see how they turn out. Growing your own food is addictive!!

    • Liz says

      I agree it’s a big learning curve, but hey, what would we do without Google? We have an old set of big old Readers Digest books on gardening my husband insists on hanging onto but it’s such a bother to look through them. I just ask Google, and find blogs like this. Gardening is exciting but when a crop is a disappointment it is such a bummer. I have had to adopt the attitude that if I do six things and five or even four are a success that’s OK, just enjoy. My asparagus never came to anything. It just produced ferns for about six years, so I lost patience with it taking up space. I do well with courgettes and Brussels sprouts. Not so good with carrots as the soil is stony. Swedes do well, and I love them ever since I got them at a wedding mashed up with cream, sherry and nutmeg. People still talk about those swedes, but no-one could tell now what else we had!

  27. Barbara says

    Our broccoli produced broccoli spears like normal, but it also produced small heads that looked liked fist-sized cabbages. The cabbage heads tasted like a cross between cabbage heads and broccoli. I know broccoli and cabbage are closely related, but has anyone else had this happen? You said broccoli leaves are good to eat, so I guess I could have eaten the cabbage-like heads.

  28. Shaz says

    Great tip on eating the broccoli leaves, can we harvest the leaves whilst the broccoli is still growing? I find they shelter the rest of the garden too much….

  29. Zahid Ali says

    I am newly start growing cauliflower in our field.plz send me all information about all verity seeds
    Not only this plz send all vegetable information

  30. Liz says

    I grew brocolli very successfully one year but it matured just before I went on holiday in July or August so I gave most of it away! This year I have Romaine cauliflower (the greenish type with little points). My problem is the few heads I have are still tiny in mid November and we are due snow here in the UK in the next few days. Will they survive that?

  31. vicky guidroz says

    i have tried many times growing vegetable pears last season i grew 2 in my hot house (very pretty long green vines) waited till soil was warm planted them the squirrels dug them up O K tried again …again pretty long green vines planted when soil was warm again covered with a wire frame was growing very well got to top of trellis then all of a sudden started to get yellow then brown leafs and both died what am i doing wrong? i am not giving up so if you have ANY advice i will sure listen to it thanks vicky

  32. Steve says

    Hi Erica, this is my second year of growing some broccoli, my question is about how to keep harvested broccoli best. Can cut down the broccoli into portions, and freeze, directly out of the garden ?

  33. joeynavis says

    just joined ur site, thanx for the info on the broccoli, we have a brand new community garden in my neighborhood and this is the first time i have had a fall garden, certainly not the last. don’t know how much of the info from ur site will apply here in southeastern louisiana but the broccoli info was just what i needed. today was the first day that we got into the thirties as we actually had a low of 33* this morning. while my broccoli seemed to do ok, my caulis are not flowering,,,, any ideas??? the plants look good but no fruit as of yet. planted at the same time as the broccoli and the broccoli is fairly close to harvest time. collards have been harvested twice now and tomatoes are a couple weeks from turning red i think. will be putting down spring tomatoes and peppers in early march after doing some improvements on our soil quality. again thanx for the info.

  34. says

    It is now into December, and in October we planted a bunch of broccoli and cauliflour seedlings from a local nursery at the beach in Malibu, but even at this stage we have gigantic leaves everywhere, but no buds. What’s wrong?

  35. says

    My cauliflower looks great as does my brocoli…my question is, I thought the cauliflower was ready to pick and picked it….it seems to be okay but it is almost separating…does that mean I waited too long or picked to early? It also seems to fall apart easier than the store bought cauliflower.

  36. Deb says

    Help! I’m so new to this gardening thing….and my broccoli plants have only been in my garden for about 3 weeks and they already have a floret formed. The plants themselves are only about 5-6″ tall! Is this supposed to be happening so soon? What did I do wrong? And…this little floret popped up in a matter of days too! There was nothing there…then we got 3 days of rain and POOF!

  37. Lucia says

    Many many many thanks for all the advice. This has been the first time ever I have planted broccoli.

    I look forward to becoming a good vegetable gardener soon.

  38. David says

    Thank you for the great explanation. When you say cut the head off, do you mean just the flower head? Or do you cut the leaves and flower head off at the same time?

  39. telitha weaver says

    thank you so much! this is exactly what I was needing to know! I haven’t grown broccoli since high school and needed a refreshed on when to harvest. your information was the best I found! thank you!!!

  40. Pat says

    Great article. “Is it ready? Should I wait? Will it get bigger? Am I too late?” That line about summed up what I was thinking. I noticed the little yellow flowers and wondered if I should harvest and sure enough I did but they must have blossomed early that morning because they weren’t there the previous day. They still tasted great. Thanks for the help.

  41. Stephanie says

    Hi I was wondering if cauliflower makes the shoots after the main head is harvested like broccoli? Or if once you cut the main head you should just compost the plant because it’s done reproducing?

  42. Kimberly says

    This is fantastic and super informative! I just harvested my carrots and my broccoli looks super healthy, but the heads are definitely still too small- and growing! I am excited to harvest and now know when to. Hoping my broccoli produces the small shoots after the first harvest too :)

    THANK you again!!

  43. Amy says

    Great post! Thanks so much for the clear and detailed description! I have 6 broccoli plants growing right now, ranging from 3″ to 6″ in head diameter. Can’t wait to harvest.

  44. JessB says

    I was literally discussing this w a friend in my garden last night. I told her I didn’t think the heads were going to get much bigger but I wasn’t sure if I should pick them. Looked at the seed pack today and it’s actually a variety that only gets 3-4 in across and does lots of shoots. Reason #89 on why you should never throw the seed pack away!

  45. Irina says

    Can I keep the plant in the ground once it is finished producing broccoli and after I harvest the leaves? Or this plant needs to be replanted every year?

  46. mike says

    first time growing broccoli large leaves some gone to flower but very happy to know all is not lost I can eat leave s and flower


  1. […] While doing my research for this post, I found a wonderful entry at NWEdible.com, that does a great job at explaining – far better than I can – when and how to harvest broccoli. It has great photos showing what the broccoli should look like at different stages of growth. (very cool). Click here for the blog post → http://www.nwedible.com/2012/09/harvest-broccoli-cauliflower.html […]

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