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To us, at least, cauliflower seems like a wimp's broccoli. As with zucchini, there is a huge literature on ways to sauce up cauliflower--cheese sauces seem particularly popular--but, as we say elsewhere, wouldn't kraft paper taste good in such yummy sauces? Does anyone actually eat plain steamed cauliflower with, at most, a little butter?
Couple its being insipid with its being a true pain in the elbow to grow--satisfactorily growing caulis is considered the acid test of home-gardening skill--and one must wonder "Why bother?" But here is the scoop for dogged fans of the thing.
As with so many crops, the hybrids have nearly driven the OP types from the seedsmen's catalogues, save the few that specialize in OP, and even with them, the lists are usually short. Early OP types getting some mention here and there include "Early White", "Snowball" (and its several variants), and "Andes" (listed by some as OP and by others as an F1 hybrid, so who knows); but the one that struck us as the likeliest for home gardeners in most regions goes by the awkward but significant name of All The Year Round. Originally, only Bountiful Gardens carried it, but one now sees it in several catalogues (U.S. catalogues, that is--it's long been in many European catalogues, which tend to have far more cultivars of everything than do North American seedsmen). It is an English heirloom variety often described as "cold-hardy".
Cauliflower is much like broccoli in its needs and treatment, but is a much fussier grower, one of the fussiest in the garden.
Timing is annoyingly tricky: we are squeezed at both ends of the vegetable's growing life.
On one hand, non-overwintering cauliflower cultivars need to produce a certain number of leaves before curd development will begin, and the optimum temperature for that is about 60° to 65° F.--but at temperatures above 68° or so, the curds will either be of poor quality or nonexistent (though one academic source, curiously, says that cauliflower grows "best when daytime temperatures are between 65° and 80°"). Ideally, though, one wants them to finish up their growth before daily air temperatures hit the 70s.
On the other hand, early cultivars can be damaged by even light frosts. Moreover, cauliflower (and broccoli) plants exposed to prolonged periods (four or more days) of temperatures below 50°F may form heads prematurely--a process called "buttoning"; plants that button will not form usable heads. (Buttoning in cole crops occurs when plants are exposed to any stressful conditions--prolonged periods of cold temperatures, dry conditions, infertile soils, overlong stays in seedling cells.) Large plants are more likely to button than young plants.
At the far end, in this area we want our cauliflower plants ready by about May 1st, when temperatures are last below 68°; at the near end, we want them in no sooner than mid-March, when temperatures last fall below 50° (all that, of course, on average). But there is no way a cauliflower is going to mature from transplant in 6 weeks! (About 10 weeks is more like it.) So, we need to make concessions at one or both ends.
After poring over our local weather records, we reckon that planting out in mid-March for an anticipated harvest around the start of June is the best we can figure. It's a little cool in middle March, so we need to provide as much help as we can--Walls o' Water or water-filled plastic jugs among the seedlings; but in late May it's only--as always, on average--about 73 at the daily high, so even if they're a little slow, we should be OK. And a March 15th transplant date means a February 1st indoors sowing date.
Get your seeds started timely, because you want to transplant them when they're vigorous, but while still young: plants that remain too long in seed flats notoriously produce "button" heads soon after planting and then grow no more. A good compromise is to allow about 6 weeks for indoors growth.
Plant seed ¼ to ½ inch deep. Cauliflower germinates best at a soil temperature of about 80° F., so keep your seed trays warm (there are pad-like electrical warmers that can keep nice, even temperatures in your seedling flats)--but keep the air temperature around seedlings, once they have germinated, mild, say 60° or so. Give them as much light as possible--use artificial light (plant-growth fluorescent tubes suspended about 2 inches above the seedlings' tops) if necessary--else they'll be leggy and weak. Provide for good air circulation around them, too. Keep developing seedlings at least an inch apart if using trays, or give them each a 2-inch pot.
Unlike many other vegetables, cauliflower actually prefers a rather heavy soil, firmly tamped. (Light-textured soils can produce earlier crops, but heavier soils better hold moisture.) The soil pH is ideally "sweet" (non-acidic), hence the frequent references in the literature to liming the soil for them--but it's not lime as such, it's the right pH that they need (a high pH also helps control clubroot disease, but you and we carefully rotate our Brassicas--you do, yes?--so that's not much of an issue with us). Something about pH 6.8 seems about right. The soil should not be fertilized heavily, since rich soil since can encourage soft, sappy growth that is more susceptible to cold damage. Cauliflowers want a sunny spot for growing.
If you want to container-grow cauliflowers, the small early kinds we discuss here probably want a 2-gallon container each ("gallons" is now a dated but common measure for plant containers: here, it's roughly a 10-inch pot).
When transplanting, take care to look for and cull "blind" seedlings--those with no tiny bud visible in the middle--for they will never set curds. Space cauliflower transplants like broccoli: at 15 inches apart.
Cauliflowers need lots of water, supplied on an even, regular basis. They don't mind wet leaves--indeed, they seem to rather like them--so water heavily. At recommended spacings, you should have a "living-mulch" leaf canopy, but nonetheless weed scrupulously. Top-dressing the plants mid-season with fish or seaweed feltilizer is a good idea.
Older cauliflower types required "blanching"--having their leaves tied over the developing head to shield it from direct sun--to stay that desired white color. Many of the modern cauliflower types "self-blanch", that is, fold their leaves over the head naturally (as we understand it, all cauliflowers tend to do that--it's just that the habit has been encouraged in the modern forms). But the worst that can happen is that the heads yellow up somewhat, whcih does not affect their eating quality. If you are container-growing them, remember to keep an especially sharp eye on soil moisture: containers don't hold a lot of water.
Be sure to harvest promptly, before the heads start to "rice" and the curds to loosen. Cut a good bit of the stem along with the head.
Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:
Cauliflower is a member of the Brassica family, which also includes broccoli (a close relative), Brussels sprouts, kale, rutabagas, turnips, kohlrabi, radishes, and various lesser crops like seakale and the true cresses (notably watercress). It is naturally a biennial plant; its flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are typically pollinated by bees, making the plant self-fertile.
The history of cauliflower is part of the overall history of cole crops (for which see the page on broccoli). As tastes in southern Europe shifted to eating the immature flower buds of cole crops, the newer varities began to emerge from their common ancestor. By the 15th century, the vegetable we today know as cauliflower had developed (this is, curiously, about a century before modern broccoli emerged.) Cauliflower was mainly restricted to Italy till the 16th century, when--with so much else of food from Italy--it was introduced to France, and thence eventually to other areas of Europe. It was first grown in North America in the late 1600s.
The growth pattern of cauliflower curds is one of many things in nature that illustrate the curious mathematical series known as Fibonacci numbers.
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