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Growing Cauliflower: The Coolest Cole Crop

If you really want to challenge yourself, consider growing cauliflower! This plant is a bit picky but has amazing results that make the effort worth it.

Throughout the growing season, you’ll be paying special attention to the temperature and watering. At harvest time, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful heads of white cauliflower or any of the many colors available!

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Cauliflower is much more diverse than you think. Many types have vibrant coloring, from sunset orange to vivid purple. You can even find textures other than the classic curds. In fact, cauliflower is often grown solely for its ornamental value.

This veggie is a cool-weather crop, which is great news for you northerners. It likes temperatures around 60°F, so it’s usually grown in the spring or fall (or both!). When you harvest cauliflower, you can eat the stem and leaves as well as the head. Healthwise, this vegetable is becoming very popular for its many beneficial nutrients.

Once you master cauliflower, nothing’s holding you back from growing other cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli or kale. Testing your skills with cauliflower can only open up more possibilities for your garden. So let’s learn all about cauliflower, how to grow it, and it’s many unique characteristics.

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Quick Care Guide

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Growing Cauliflower
Growing cauliflower of all shapes and sizes is fun and flavorful! Source: letouj
Common Name(s) Cauliflower
Scientific Name Brassica oleracea var. botrytis
Days to Harvest 55-100 days depending on variety
Light Full sun to partial shade
Water: Consistent, 1″ per week
Soil Loamy, fertile soil, well-draining
Fertilizer High-nitrogen or balanced veggie formula
Pests Cabbage worms, cabbage loopers, armyworms, aphids, thrips, flea beetles, cucumber beetles, snails, slugs
Diseases Clubroot, bacterial soft rot, powdery mildew, downy mildew, cauliflower mosaic virus

All About Cauliflower

Early cauliflower development
Once the leafy greens of the plant form, the small head begins in the center. Source: grrrlgeek

This sounds like a redundant question, but is cauliflower a flower? Yes! The name rings true, unlike many other misleading names in the botanical world (I’m looking at you, pineapple).

The edible, compacted head is actually a mass of undeveloped flower buds. Beneath the clusters or curds are large, lettuce-like leaves. Once they’re large enough, gardeners often wrap and tie the leaves around the head to give it protection from full sun. If allowed to set seed, the cauliflower will “bolt” and produce small, yellow flowers with capsules of seeds.

It’s believed that cauliflower originated in the Northeast Mediterranean. It wasn’t until the 1700s that it became popular in the rest of Europe. In the 20th century, this vegetable finally took hold in the US, which is the third-largest country to grow it.

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You can probably tell that cauliflower and broccoli are closely related, but what you may not know is that they, and many other common vegetables, are actually the same species. Brassica oleracea is split into numerous cultivars including cabbage, Brussel sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, and, of course, broccoli and cauliflower.

The Botrytis group, or variety, includes cauliflowers in many colors and shapes. The light green Romanesco cauliflower (broccoflower), has a spiky form that looks like an aerial view of a pine tree forest. Most typical cauliflower ends up with a more soft, cloud-like shape.

If you’re looking for more color, there’s not much that can top the flamboyant purple varieties, like the Graffiti hybrid. You can also find this vegetable in yellow-orange, like the Cheddar variety, which holds many more nutrients than the original white one. Of course, this barely brushes the surface of all the varieties out there, so have some fun choosing which cauliflower to plant!

Usually grown as an annual in the United States, the cauliflower can act as a tender biennial in cooler climates. It requires warmer temperatures to go fully into flower, which means that late spring or early summer can bring on a shower of bright yellow flowers.

Planting Cauliflower

Young cauliflower plant
The first signs of a cauliflower head are beginning to form. Source: Br3nda

Perhaps the most important aspect of learning how to grow cauliflower plants is paying attention to temperature. When and where you plant will have a huge impact on quality, so you’ll have to plan it out. Spring and fall typically provide the ideal weather for cauliflower, while summer is too intense.

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Start your cauliflower seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost. Plant them at least 7 weeks before if you live in an area with short springs. Choose a well-draining and fertile soil and plant each seed ½ inch deep. Germination takes around 10 days, during which you should keep the soil moist and covered with plastic. When the seedlings emerge, remove the covering and place the container in the sunlight.

You can transplant your baby cauliflower plants 2-4 weeks before the last frost. If you choose to buy starts instead of seeds, they can also be planted at this time. Whichever you choose, harden off the seedlings first so they can acclimate to the temperature change. Place the containers outside for increasing amounts of time each day. Do this for a week or more before putting them outside permanently. For cauliflower spacing, plant them 24 inches apart, with 2-3 feet between rows. To help keep the soil moist, add some mulch on top.

Because they have shallow roots, you can easily grow cauliflower in pots instead of the ground. Just be sure to plant them 24 inches apart, ½ inch deep, and provide plenty of water.

If you’d like to grow a crop in the fall as well, start the seeds indoors at the beginning of July. Transplant them in mid-August so they’ll be ready to harvest before the frost settles in. Choose a cool location to plant them so the late-summer heat won’t affect their growth.

Care

Cauliflower leaves and head
The long leaves can be used to naturally blanch the cauliflower head. Source: UnconventionalEmma

As the cauliflower-keeper, you’re in charge of keeping your Brassica happy. Here’s everything your cauliflower needs.

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Sun and Temperature

Full sun is best for cauliflower plants as long as the temperature is in check. Your plants need a stable temperature of around 60°F. Anything above 80°F can negatively affect growth. Conversely, consistent temps around freezing can have a similar effect.

Prolonged exposure to sunlight may cause the cauliflower head to turn brown-green and develop a strong flavor. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can quash your dreams of growing beautiful produce. It can happen to any color of cauliflower, though some varieties naturally protect their heads from light.

Luckily, you can preserve the head color yourself by blanching the plant. All you have to do is loosely wrap the outer leaves around the head and secure them with a rubber band or twine. Do so once the head is the size of an egg and keep it that way until harvest. Make sure the plant is dry before blanching so you don’t trap in moisture.

Water and Humidity

Cauliflower needs lots of water, at least an inch per week. Water it deeply and often so that the soil doesn’t dry out. Underwatering will result in a smaller head and break up the uniform curds. Needless to say, these plants are not drought-resistant!

Try to water the soil only and keep the leaves and head dry, especially after blanching. Water in the morning so the sun dries any water that does get on the plant. Using soaker hoses at the base of the plant also reduces the chances of water on the foliage. Mulching can help maintain soil moisture.

Soil

Choose a soil that’s loamy, fertile, and has a pH of 6.0-7.0. It needs to hold water well, but not so much that it drowns the roots. This can be achieved by adding in organic soil amendments, such as composted cow manure or horse manure. Worm castings can also be applied for moisture retention.

Fertilizing

Use a high-nitrogen fertilizer to help the cauliflower heads grow. The first soil application should be about a month after transplanting. After that, apply side-dressings every 2-4 weeks at the most. If you can’t find a good high-nitrogen fertilizer, opt for a balanced organic formula optimized for vegetables.

You can use a granular or liquid fertilizer, altering the application schedule according to the package directions. These can be heavy feeders, particularly in terms of nitrogen, so starting with rich soil is beneficial.

Propagation

Cauliflower is typically propagated by seed. Other methods of propagation aren’t viable.

Since we’ve covered how to plant already, let’s go over harvesting cauliflower seeds! It’s not always guaranteed to be reliable, but as you’re growing cauliflower anyway, if it bolts it’s worth trying.

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As with most other plants, the most reliable seeds are those which have not been cross-pollinated with other varieties. Unfortunately, that means that if you’ve got cauliflower and broccoli in the same bed, they might have cross-pollinated. The seeds that result are often not true to type, plus you run the risk of passing on an assortment of diseases.

When cauliflower bolts, all of those lovely immature flowerbuds that make up the tasty head will suddenly burst to life. Long, tall shoots will cause the head to explode outward with growth, and from the buds develop yellow flowers. Assuming that your local pollinators do their work well, you’ll be rewarded with a bunch of seed pods once the flowers fade and die back.

To harvest these seeds, allow the pods to mostly dry while on the plant. Then, snip off the pods and leave them somewhere to finish drying out. You’ll then be able to break open the pods to get the seeds. Store your seeds in a cool, dry, and dark location until it’s planting time.

Harvesting and Storing

Cauliflower ready to eat
Once harvested, refrigerate or freeze your cauliflower. Source: WordRidden

The cauliflower head grows faster than you think, so keep an eye on it (especially if it’s blanched). Before you know it, you’ll be harvesting, storing, and enjoying this tasty flower.

Harvesting

Depending on the variety, cauliflower heads will be ready to harvest 2-3 months after planting. You need to get the timing just right so you have the optimal size without the effects of aging. If left growing too long, the curds will loosen up and become grainy in texture. The plants also might bolt, and once that happens you’ve lost your head!

The cauliflower head should be 6-8 inches in diameter and in good color true to its variety. Using a sharp knife, cut off the cauliflower a few inches below the head. The leaves will help protect the head while it’s being stored. If you’re planning to eat the outer leaves, keep the majority of the stem attached. After harvesting, you can remove and throw out the beheaded plant.

To remove any bugs that are living in the head, submerge the whole head in water for 30 minutes. This will drown the pests or cause them to flee, making it safer to eat and store.

Storing

When storing, cauliflower likes to be cold and requires some humidity. The temperature should be 32-40°F, so the fridge is ideal. Unfortunately, fridges are also very dry so you’ll have to conserve humidity. Get a damp cloth or paper towel and wrap it and the cauliflower in plastic. When stored this way, it will last for 2-4 weeks – a much longer shelf life than most produce!

Cauliflower can also be frozen in chunks. Cut it into inch-long pieces and parboil them for 30-60 seconds, but don’t fully cook them through. This preserves their texture so that they can be cooked fully later. Halt the cooking by transferring your cauliflower florets into an ice-water bath, then once cooled, pat them dry. Transfer the cauliflower to an airtight bag or container and stick it in the freezer. They’ll be good to eat for one year.

Troubleshooting

Cauliflower plant with light insect damage
Many insects find cauliflower to be delicious. Source: mamichan

As with any plant, there are potential problems with growing cauliflower. Here’s what you should be on the lookout for.

Growing Problems

Because it’s a cool-weather crop, Brassica oleracea is susceptible to bolting. This holds true for all of the cole crops that fall into this species, including kale, broccoli, and more. This is usually brought on by the weather warming up. A few hot days and the plant will decide its growing season is nearly over and it’s time to go to seed… and if it does, you’ve lost your cauliflower. Harvest your heads before they bolt!

Buttoning is a growth problem that affects many brassica vegetables. In cauliflower, when the head buttons, the curds break apart and grow irregularly. What was once a compact, white cauliflower is now a clumpy mess. Buttoning is caused by stress, and that usually is caused by irregular temperatures. It’s also a sign that your head may bolt soon.

Pests

Larvae and caterpillars are a common threat to the cauliflower plant. Cabbage worms and cabbage loopers will live on and much through the leaves. The armyworm is another threat that can harm your beloved plants. BT sprays or powders are an effective control for these pests, as is spinosad and pyrethrin spray. Diatomaceous earth spread on the dry leaves of the plant can also prevent them from moving in.

Leaf damage is something you never want to see on your plants. If you do notice it though, snails, slugs, cucumber beetles, or flea beetles may be to blame. Snails and slugs hide in foliage and soil during the day and come out to feed at night, chewing gaping holes through the leaves. Flea beetles and cucumber beetles work tirelessly to eat until only skeletonized leaves are left behind. For snails and slugs, use an organic bait to lure them away from the plants and kill them. The beetles can be treated with spinosad or pyrethrin sprays, although neem oil can also be useful as a preventative.

Aphids and thrips are both nasty bugs that just can’t leave cauliflower alone. They suck out plant sap, taking the plant’s livelihood with it. In addition, both can spread various plant diseases. Luckily, there are a number of simple remedies to control these pests. Insecticidal soap, diatomaceous earth, and neem oil can work wonders if applied correctly. And don’t forget your beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings!

Diseases

Clubroot is caused by a soil pathogen that can survive in your soil for over 10 years. It spreads easily, so this is something you have to get under control immediately. Symptoms of clubroot in your white cauliflower plants include yellowing, wilting, and stunted growth. The roots will become deformed and swollen (clubbed). Prevent this and other diseases by planting in sterile soil that’s free of disease. This fungus is extremely difficult to eradicate, so prevention is the best option. Planting certified disease-free seed prevents future spread too.

Bacterial soft rot is guaranteed to turn your cauliflower plant from yum to yuck. It makes the head and leaves mushy and excessively wet. They may even start to ooze liquid that turns brown or black. As you can guess, this bacteria is encouraged by warm and wet conditions. It also spreads easily through garden tools. Sadly, there isn’t much to do about this disease except keep your plants healthy enough to prevent it. Keep the soil and plants clean and avoid getting the head and leaves wet. You should also practice good crop rotation with your plants.

Most gardeners are familiar with the twin threats of powdery mildew and downy mildew. Both are common on cole crops, and both are annoying to resolve. Neem oil can help reduce their formation, but if they appear, a copper-based fungicide is your best bet for preventing further spread. Remove all infected material and treat until there are no signs of further infestation.

The cauliflower mosaic virus is transmitted by sucking pests such as aphids and thrips. There are no treatments for mosaic virus species, and prevention is your only protection. Keep pests away from your plants to avoid this deadly plant disease.

Frequently Asked Questions

Cauliflower head almost ready to harvest
This cauliflower head is nearly ready to be harvested. Source: anna_gregory

Q: How long does it take to grow cauliflower?

A: You’ll be able to harvest cauliflower 55-100 days after planting, depending on the variety.

Q: How many heads of cauliflower do you get from one plant?

A: You’ll only get one head per plant. Unfortunately, the heads don’t regrow after harvesting.

Q: Is it hard to grow cauliflower?

A: It can be a demanding crop, particularly if you’re racing to get good harvestable heads before the weather gets really warm. But it’s a fast-growing crop, so as long as you keep it pest and disease free and opt for cooler times of year, it’s pretty simple.

 

This post was first published here

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