Cauliflower is the Sweetest, Mildest Tasting Vegetable
Cauliflower is a flower; the big, lumpy white ‘head’ that we eat is a cluster of flower buds nested inside a cabbage-like plant. It is believed that cauliflower is the sweetest, mildest-tasting member of the cabbage family, but home gardeners grow it far less often than the other brassicas.
Perhaps it won’t tolerate either very hot or very cold weather, so there is only a short season before and after the summer heat in which you can grow it. Or most varieties need to be “blanched,” their heads covered with leaves while they’re maturing. Unblanched heads turn green and don’t taste as good as white ones.
Yet cauliflower certainly has its place in the garden. It is a good source of calcium and other vitamins; it freezes well; it is expensive to buy in the store; and it is not difficult to grow if you know and respect its need for a steady supply of water. There’re even purple-headed varieties that look like broccoli when cooked but taste nonetheless like cauliflower and do not need blanching.
Select a Site for Cauliflower
You should select a sunny, well-drained spot where other cabbage family vegetables have not grown recently. The space requirements are the same as for the cabbage.
Select a Soil for Cauliflower
Provide the same soil conditions that you’d for other brassicas. The soil should be fairly rich, particularly in nitrogen and potassium. The pH should be 6.0 to 7.0. And plenty of organic matter should be incorporated into the soil so that it will retain moisture. It is best to dig compost or well-rotted manure into the soil in the fall before planting.
Cauliflower can take a little frost at the very beginning and the very end of its life, but not much. It really needs at least two months of cool but not frosty weather to mature. This means you can plant it in the fall or late winter in warm climates. In cold ones, it is usually a fall crop, of which there can be many successions, each a week or two apart. Plant fall crops from late May to early July, depending on how cold your climate is.
The idea is to allow two to three months between the time you set it out and the first frosts. Purple head cauliflower takes longer—about 85 days—to harvest. Well, for spring crops, start seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before setting the plants out. Keep the seeds at about 70 degrees if you can, with a steady supply of moisture. The roots do not like to be disturbed in transplanting, so use peat pots.
When they’re about six inches tall, they can be planted outside, as long as it is no earlier than three or four weeks before the last expected frost. You can set the plants outside to harden off several weeks earlier. Set the plants about 18 to 24 inches apart. Build a saucer of earth around each plant to help it hold water and use cutworm collars Fall crops of cauliflower can be planted directly in the garden, but to save space, use a cold frame or the “nursery bed” section of your garden to get late plants started, and then transplant them to their growing place. Otherwise, sow them in hills and thin them to one seedling per hill.
The most important thing about raising cauliflower is to keep the growth going. It cannot sit out a hot, dry spell. If it is dry, give the soil a good soaking to the depth of about six inches. Mulch will also help keep the soil moist. If the heads are still not growing, topdress the plants with liquid fertilizer.
The white flower head that emerges is called a “curd” or “button” when it is egg-sized. Blanch it by bending over the big leaves that surround it so that they cover the curd, then tuck them in on the opposite side, breaking the ribs of the leaves to keep them from springing back. If the head still doesn’t stay covered, tie some leaves together at the top with a string or rubber band.
The idea is to keep light and moisture out but let some air in, and also leave some space in which the head can grow. The heads should not be covered when the plant is wet, or they may not. Water the ground around the plants and keep the soil water constant.
Pests and Diseases to Cauliflower
For pests and diseases, treat cauliflower the way you would broccoli, cabbage, or Brussels sprouts. Root maggots are sometimes a problem in the fall crop.
Check the heads from time to time to see if they’re large enough—about six inches across—but still tight, with the buds unopened Some varieties have larger heads up to 12 inches so consult the information on the seed package or in the catalog. When they’re ready, cut them right away, just below the head, and either uses them or freeze them. If you pull up the plant, roots and all, it will keep in a cool cellar for at least a month.
Varieties of Cauliflower
The snowball varieties, such as snowball and snow king, are large-headed late crops. But “Super Snowball,” ‘Snowball Improved’ pearly white snow crown hybrid and snow king hybrid mature faster. Self-blanche has leaves that curl over the head by themselves; the purple head is a popular purple variety.