Cauliflowers can be a tricky vegetable to grow well, because they are very finicky about soil, light, water and space. Their heads (actually called curds) have a tendency to bolt or go discoloured if everything is not just right. But home-grown cauliflower has a quality that you cannot find in shops, and considering the price these days they are well worth devoting the time and space to.
Cauliflower is an excellent source of vitamin C, K, fibre and magnesium. The curds are a fantastic side vegetable on many dishes, from Sunday lunches to stir fries, and are even a great addition to curries. Of course, the most mouth-watering and moreish use of the plant has to be making cauliflower cheese. There are few meals more satisfying than a massive plate of cauliflower cheese served with sausages or pork chops and black pepper cracked over the top.
Although the plant is difficult to satisfy, that should not put you off, if the proper prep and procedures are followed then it is entirely possible to grow great cauliflower with huge tightly formed curds, so read on to find out how.
Cauliflowers come in various sizes, shapes and colours, and there are summer, autumn and winter varieties. Summer cauliflowers are generally sown in the middle of January, planted out at the beginning of April and harvested in August. Autumn varieties are sown in May to be planted out in June, and winter varieties are sown in late June to be transplanted in July. Be aware that winter varieties will not grow well in Britain outside of the South West.
Di Sicilia Violetto
A great purple winter variety with a fantastic sweet flavour. It is hardy against both cold and insects, and will perform well in all kinds of soils with deep purple coloured heads that are certain to impress.
A classic white cauliflower for harvesting in autumn. It produces quality curds which are naturally protected by its leaves, allowing them to remain in good condition in extreme weathers, and it is also resistant against club root.
An early white variety that is often grown in large, close batches for its mini-sized heads.
A beautiful and strange autumn strain of cauliflower that grows curds with psychedelic Fibonacci fractal patterns. It comes in white or green strains and tastes great. Romanesco will continue to produce smaller heads after the main head has been cut.
A yellow early variety that is quite hardy. It turns bright orange when it is boiled and has heads of a good size and shape.
Cauliflower is grown from seeds which are better set off indoors before planting out. Modular seed trays work well for easy transplanting later.
Fill a modular seed tray with compost and make sure it is not clumpy. Use a pencil or dibber to make a hole in each cell about 1.5 cm (0.5”) deep. Put a cauliflower seed in each one, cover with a little more compost and water the tray gently before placing on a windowsill or in a cold frame.
In about 4 weeks the seedlings should be ready to plant out.
Planting in The Ground
Cauliflower will want a relatively sunny position and you will need to prep the soil well. It is best to prepare the bed in advance if you can.
If you have planted peas or beans the previous year then congratulations, you should have a good spot already and you can put them there. If not, then you should have dug in plenty of manure the autumn before. Do not try to dig in compost or manure in the weeks before planting or the soil will go acidic and cauliflowers hate that, and you could end up with tiny curds or a disease called club root which can become a long term problem for the garden. Digging in some lime a month before planting can be a big help if you feel your soil could be acidic. Cauliflower does not favour fine soil, so the best thing is to dig it over a month or so before planting and leave it to settle.
When you are ready to start planting, make small holes in the ground big enough to accept the contents of the cells in your seed tray. Plant out your seedlings in rows, leave 60 cm (23”) between plants and 60cm between rows to allow plants to reach their full potential. If you do not give them sufficient space then you will end up with small heads, but some people like to grow mini cauliflowers, so if that is your goal then you can plant more seedlings and leave, say, 15 cm (6”) between them instead.
Firm soil is very important to create tightly formed heads, so after you plant each seedling make sure to firm around it well with your boot. Water the plants after planting but do not make the ground waterlogged.
Keep the beds completely free of weeds, you can use a hoe between rows if you like but be careful not to slice into your precious cauliflower plants.
Do not allow cauliflower plants to run out of water or they will begin to bolt, but don’t drench them either. Regular, moderated watering is the best way to proceed.
Caterpillars and aphids will attack your plants so keep an eye out for them by turning over leaves. Pick or hose off any you find. Caterpillars are particularly devastating, so look out for clusters of small yellow caterpillar eggs and be sure to get them off the plant or when they hatch they will raze plants to the ground.
When hot weather comes, break some of the plant’s leaves over the head to protect the curd from discoloration caused by direct sunlight.
Cut the heads off the plants with a sharp knife before the individual parts of the curd begin to separate. If they start separating, then you have left it too late. You might wish to start cutting some heads while they are quite small, so that you do not end up with a glut of curds you cannot use, since they do not store much longer than two weeks. Then you can leave others to mature to their full size.
When you have cut the heads, pull up the plants roots and all and compost them, if any show signs of disease, especially club root, then burn them.