Cauliflower belongs to the Cole, or cabbage, family but isn’t as easy to grow as cabbage. The delicious taste and versatility it provides in your diet is well worth the extra effort; some people even consider cauliflower a delicacy! Cauliflower is a cool-season vegetable that can be planted a week or two before the last frost in early spring. You can also plant in summer for an early fall crop. Taking the time and effort to understand the climate and soil conditions cauliflower does best in– before you plant– will go a long way toward ensuring success in growing this vegetable.
Cauliflower grows best in fertile, well-drained, consistently moist soil. It needs to be planted in full sun (at least 6 hours a day. The optimal pH level for cauliflower is between 6.0 and 7.0. The soil should be high in both organic matter and nitrogen. Cauliflower is finicky about the climate it grows in. Either too much cold or too much heat can affect the quality and quantity of the heads. Because the weather is so difficult to predict, this balancing act can be hard to manage. There may be seasons when your cauliflower produces better than others simply because of the climate.
Good soil preparation is important when planting cauliflower. The best way to determine your soil conditions are to have a soil test performed. Your local university extension office can perform a soil test. To locate your nearest extension office, go to http://www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/.
If your soil is lacking in organic matter and/or nitrogen you can add manure or compost to the soil along with a nitrogen fertilizer during planting. Fertilizer can be applied two more times during the growing season at two-week intervals. Make sure the soil is well cultivated to a depth of at least 8-10 inches before planting.
Cauliflower is usually transplanted from seedlings to the garden. The plants can be purchased from a nursery or garden center. You can also sow the seeds directly into the garden (after the last frost date) or start the seeds indoors about six weeks prior to transplantation.
Transplant the seedlings 18 inches apart in rows that are 30 inches apart. Water the seedlings immediately after transplanting; any wilting could permanently damage the plant. Another way to ensure a good crop is to choose active, healthy plants that have had continuous, steady growth. Buying plants that have been stunted or in flats for too long are prone to producing poor, or no, curds. After planting, apply a top mulch to preserve moisture and prevent the soil from drying out and cracking.
Care for Cauliflower
Cauliflower plants must have consistent moisture; make sure they receive at least an inch of water per week and do not let the soil completely dry out. Healthy curd development results from continuous and vigorous growth. Anything that halts or slows the plant growth will potentially lead to little or no head development. Common interruptions can include too little moisture (drought), plant damage, or extremes in weather.
How to Blanch Cauliflower
Cauliflower heads (or curds) need to be blanched. This process involves tying the outer leaves together to cover the curd when the heads have about 2-3 inches of growth. Blanching prevents the heads from damage from the sun, turning green and obtaining an “off” taste. There are varieties that “self-blanch” and naturally curl their leaves to cover and protect the developing head.
Depending on the variety planted, cauliflower takes between 50 and 70 days to mature.
Once the leaves have been blanched, and if growing conditions are good, the curds develop and mature within 7-10 days. Look for full, compact, firm, white heads. To harvest the heads, simply cut the plant at the main stem (leave a few outer leaves for protection) before the heads begin to have a “ricey” appearance; by then they are overly mature and will not taste good. Another sign that your cauliflower is past its prime and will begin to quickly deteriorate is the formation of single florets. After harvesting your crop, you can dispose of the plants in your compost pile, as cauliflower does not usually produce side shoots or a second crop. Cauliflower, like most garden vegetables can be frozen for later consumption. Make sure to blanch them first then place in the freezer immediately after draining and drying.
Cauliflower diseases and pests
Some problems you may encounter when growing cauliflower include:
Imported Cabbage Worm: These are white or yellow “butterflies” that have black spots, and attack cauliflower curds. These pests begin causing trouble in April and continue until September. The butterflies lay eggs on the cauliflower which later hatch into worms which feed on the heads. Covers can be used to prevent this, or insecticides if needed.
Cabbage Looper: are gray-brown moths with silver markings on its’ wings. They lay eggs on the leaves of the cabbage and feed on the leaves and continue to the heads.
Diamond back moths: These moths lay eggs on the underside of the leaves close to the veins. The larvae are green and feed on the leaves from the inside out. These moths are grayish-brown and have three diamond shapes on their body, for which they are named after. They originate in the south and migrate to northern states later in the season. Treatment of the Cabbage Looper and Diamond Back moths are similar. You can cover the crop or use an insecticide if necessary. Cleaning up all debris at the end of the season, after harvest and when leaves drop is also important.
Brown heads: can be caused by downy mildew, or direct sun when water is on the head/curd.
Varieties of Cauliflower
Some recommended varieties to try are:
- Snow Crown
- Snow King
- Snowball 123
- Imperial 10-6
Want to learn more about growing cauliflower?
The University of Hawaii Extension has extensive information on cauliflower diseases and pests.
Ohio State University Extension put together a fact sheet about growing home garden cauliflower from University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.