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.
Imported cabbageworms are an insidious garden pest.
Cabbageworms start out as tiny yellow or white, rocket-shaped eggs that are laid singly on the undersides of leaves. Then, slightly fuzzy green caterpillars emerge and start feeding, and feed they do!
According to the UC IMP (Integrated Pest Management) page: biological controls include natural enemies such as the pupal parasite Pteromalus puparum; the larval parasites Apanteles glomeratus, Microplitis plutella, and several tachinid flies; and egg parasites in the Trichogramma genus. Biological control and sprays of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and the Entrust formulation of spinosad are organically acceptable management tools.
In addition to regularly monitoring plants for the presence of cabbageworms, I have trained my dog to chase cabbage butterflies out of my yard.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!