As a child, I detested cauliflower above all vegetables.
It probably had a lot to do with the evening an encyclopedia salesman arrived just at dinner time. My single parent mother was bad at telling people to go away, so our already overcooked cauliflower sat on our plates, congealing, for nearly an hour. We didn’t have a microwave, so we had to eat it at room temperature. My mother’s rageful mood didn’t help our appetites.
Since those days, I have come a long way in my view of cauliflower. Apparently, so has the rest of the world. The peppery flavor of this cruciferous treat now grace menus in every meal. Grilled slabs of cauliflower are used as burgers, pureed cauliflower provides a low-starch replacement for mashed potatoes and potato pancakes, and the list of cauliflower recipes is getting longer every day. If that weren’t reason enough to add cauliflower to your foodscape, here’s another reason: you can start a cauliflower crop in the Bay Area twice a year!
When we eat cauliflower, we normally assume we are eating a flower, but we’re not. That is only true if you are eating broccoli. The part of a cauliflower that we normally eat is botanically known as ‘inflorescence meristem’. This plant tissue is a cluster of undifferentiated plant cells that form a ‘curd’. You know, the stuff Little Miss Muffet ate, sitting on her tuffet. Okay, she was eating a dairy product, but the appearance is similar.
How to grow cauliflower
Due to our local climate, cauliflower seeds can be started in January, February, and March, for an early summer crop, and again, in September, for a winter crop. If you are organized, you can also install cauliflower plants in August and October, but that means getting your seeds started beforehand. Cauliflower cannot survive our summer heat, so don’t waste your time with late maturing varieties. Seeds should be planted 1/2 inch deep in small containers and then transplanted when they look sturdy. Each plant will need an area 1-1/2 to 2 feet square to reach full size. Cauliflower (Brassica oleracea) uses a lot of water, so frequent irrigation is critical. As heads mature, protect them from sun damage by folding leaves over the flower.
While normally white, cauliflower varieties now come in purple, yellow, green, and orange. In the Bay Area, the best cauliflower varieties are:
There is also a crazy, spiky looking hybrid, Romanesco, that you may want to try.
Cauliflower pests and diseases
Cauliflower is susceptible to the same pests and diseases as other cole crops, such as broccoli and cabbage. For this reason, it is a good idea to avoid planting these crops in the same location, year after year. Crop rotation can break the cycle of many pests and diseases. This is called breaking the disease triangle. Row covers are very helpful when growing cauliflower. The most bare common pests of cauliflower include:
Powdery mildew, verticillium wilt, phytophthora root rot, clubroot, and damping off are common cauliflower diseases. Cauliflower plants are also subject to a condition called buttoning. Buttoning occurs when several days of excessive cold hit, causing plants to rush to create flowers that end up being significantly smaller than normal. Cute as a button doesn’t really fly in the world of cauliflower - though individual minis might look amazing on the Thanksgiving Dinner table! Anyway, excessive salt in the soil, competition from weeds, and insufficient water or nitrogen can also cause buttoning. Basically, if the plant thinks its on the verge of death, it will panic and produce tiny flowers, rather than no flowers at all.
Leave your cauliflower heads to mature fully before harvesting. When it is done growing, it will be fully open. Cut the plant off at soil level and leave the below-ground portion to feed the soil, worms, and soil microbes.
Slow and steady is the name of the game when growing cauliflower. Many people say that cauliflower is not easy to grow, but I have not found that to be true.. These plants need nutrient-rich soil, regular irrigation, and the protection needed to develop into substantial plants before flower production begins. I grew my first cauliflower plants in a narrow bed against my house, where I had processed my compost for a couple of years. They came up beautifully.
Erratically flying white butterflies that look more like moths and favor members of the cabbage family are insidious garden pests. If that weren't bad enough, chemicals found in their favorite foods make them distasteful to birds.
The first sign of cabbageworm infestation is random, round holes in the leaves of cabbage, kale, cauliflower, broccoli and other members of the Cruciferae or cabbage family. You may also notice greenish brown fecal pellets littering leaf surfaces.
Cabbageworms start out as tiny yellow, green, or white, rocket-shaped eggs that are laid singly on the undersides of leaves. If you have a hand lens, you can see distinct ridges on the eggs. Whether you can see that well or not, do your plants a favor and wipe the eggs off whenever you see them.
Cabbageworm butterflies tend to be white or off-white with one to four black spots on the wings. Larvae are green and fuzzy and can grow to one inch long. Larvae often have a faint yellow stripe on the back and broken yellow lines along the sides. Pupae are a mottled brownish grey.
There are actually several different white butterflies that lay eggs on plants in the cabbage family. Collectively, they are called ‘cabbage whites’. Native species of cabbage whites include:
The imported cabbageworm, Pieris rapae, has largely replaced these native cabbage butterflies and will be the subject of the remainder of this post.
Damage caused by imported cabbageworm
As soon as the eggs hatch, fuzzy green caterpillars start feeding, and feed they do! They start by eating their own eggshell and then they chew round holes in leaves at an alarming rate. Healthy plants can look tattered in only a few days. Leaving trails of brown fecal pellets on leaf surfaces, larvae may also burrow into cauliflower and broccoli heads, making them inedible.
Since cabbageworms are active year round in California, the damage they cause can be extensive. A single adult cabbageworm can fly over 7 miles in a single day, so you really need to be on the alert.
How to control imported cabbageworms
Unlike many other invasive pests, imported cabbageworms actually have some enemies already. Tachinid flies and a handful of parasites feed regularly on cabbageworm eggs and larvae. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that those natural controls will not be enough once cabbageworms have found your crops. You can spray Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) or spinosad for a measure of organically acceptable control. Handpicking is really your best control. And get rid of any nearby weeds from the cabbage family. Adult cabbageworm butterflies feed on nectar from flowers, preferring blooms of purple, blue, and yellow.
Personally, in addition to regularly monitoring plants for the presence of cabbageworms, I have trained my dog to chase cabbage butterflies out of my yard. It helps, and it’s pretty fun to watch.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!