Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education- Mark Twain
Oh, cauliflower. Princess to my pea. You are so fussy. And yet, I just can’t quit you!
Cauliflower is definitely a pros and cons kind of plant. I’ll get into these pros and cons in detail throughout this article, as well as provide tips for minimizing some of the “cons.”
Even with all of the pitfalls of growing cauliflower, I do often grow it. I enjoy the challenge and I really like to eat it. I also get excited watching the heads develop. I don’t grow cauliflower during growing seasons when I know I will be busy or frequently absent.
Why Grow Cauliflower?
Cauliflower, especially garden fresh cauliflower, is extremely delicious. It is also versatile to cook with. It can be sliced and pan fried like steaks, or minced and made into gluten-free pizza crust. Roasted whole, cauliflower provides a substantial and satisfying meal. Cauliflower makes crunchy pickles that can be made with a wide range of seasonings.
Cauliflower is filled with compounds that fight inflammation and cancer, and promote healthy hearts and brains. It is packed with antioxidants, even more so than other healthy brassicas such as cabbage. It is a great source of vitamin C, vitamin K, and B vitamins. It also contains protein and fiber.
Cauliflower often commands a high price. This may tempt you to skip it at the grocery store in favor of other vegetables. Growing your own is a great way to bring it back to your table. If you sell your vegetables, cauliflower can bring you a good price. I personally have never sold it because after all the work of growing it, I want to keep it for myself!
There are beautiful and fun varieties of cauliflower. These include vivid yellow and purple cauliflower, and the psychedelically fractal romanesco. Some of these varieties contain an additional nutritional boost. For example, yellow or orange cauliflower contains a good dose of vitamin A. Romanesco has up to four times the cancer-fighting compounds as ordinary white cauliflower.
|Delicious and versatile to cook with||Finicky about temperature, soil, and water regime|
|Crops command a good price||Space intensive|
|Good for shoulder season harvest||Pests love it|
|Expensive to buy in the store||Short window for harvest|
|Extremely high in antioxidants||Fertilizer intensive|
|Available in exciting varieties||Single harvest per plant|
Because of its sensitivity to extreme heat, cauliflower is a good spring or fall crop. Gardeners in truly hot places can grow it in the winter. Cauliflower also grows well in summer in cool areas where heat-loving crops like eggplant, beans and basil struggle. Therefore, cauliflower is a good option to integrate into a year-round growing cycle.
Drawbacks of Growing Cauliflower
Cauliflower is prone to a phenomenon called “buttoning.” A cauliflower plant that “buttons” produces premature tiny nubs instead of a full head. This plant will never produce any substantial yield for you.
Cauliflower is susceptible to buttoning if:
- It is exposed to high temperatures
- It is exposed to low temperatures
- It is allowed to become too dry
- It doesn’t like the soil
- It doesn’t receive enough nutrients
- The starts are planted when they are too big
- It overhears you talking about it behind its back
Cauliflower also holds a grudge. If any of these poor treatments occur when a cauliflower plant is small, the plant will appear to recover. However, weeks later, it will button.
Cauliflower takes up a lot of space for the amount of payoff you receive. The plants are large, and only deliver a single head. You might want to consider allocating your precious space to crops that will give you more food for the space they take up. For example, broccoli varieties that give off prolific side shoots can be harvested throughout the growing season.
The space issue is especially poignant if your cauliflower plants button or succumb to pests. Essentially you will have wasted time and space that could have gone towards another crop.
Cauliflower requires a lot of nutrients to give you a good head. This goes back to the same resource allocation problem as the space issue. If you have to ration your compost, can you afford to give cauliflower a big dose? Or would you be better off growing less demanding crops?
Cauliflower head quality deteriorates quickly on the plant. Succession planting of cauliflower is difficult because of its temperature sensitivity. Therefore, you typically will have to harvest all of your cauliflower over a very short period of time. Thankfully, cauliflower makes delicious pickles.
Cauliflower attracts a wide variety of pests. Voles and other woodland creatures can eat a whole head of cauliflower overnight. Destructive insects such as root maggots and diseases such as black mold also attack cauliflower. Preventive measures will be discussed later in this article.
Selecting Cauliflower Varieties to Grow
All cauliflower is finicky, but some varieties are less unforgiving than others. “Snow Crown,” “Snowball” and “Amazing” are somewhat easier varieties. It is also well worth discussing varieties with neighbors. When in doubt, it is always good to start with varieties that have proven themselves in your own unique climate.
Of course if you really want to make a splash, go for some of the exciting varieties. Romanesco will hypnotize you with its fractal appearance. It also has even more of a nutritional punch than ordinary cauliflower. The yellow and purple varieties are dramatic, and appeal to restaurant buyers. They, too, have more nutrients than white varieties.
Many plants take cues to grow from either lengthening or shortening days. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to whether you are planting early (lengthening days) or late (shortening days) varieties.
- Look for early varieties for spring and early summer crops
- Look for fall varieties for fall crops.
Most seed catalogs are extremely clear about this, so you do not have to do your own research.
When to Plant Cauliflower
Cauliflower has a lot of enemies, but the biggest is hot summer weather. Therefore, your timing depends on your climate.
In climates with cool, rainy summers, you can plant cauliflower in spring for an early summer harvest.
In climates with hot summers, planting for fall harvest is the most widely practiced option.
In the deep south and other hot places, cauliflower can be grown as a winter crop.
Of course, in keeping with its fussy nature, you want to select a mild day for transplanting seedlings.
Where to Plant Cauliflower
Cauliflower requires at least 6 hours of full sun. However, if your cauliflower might be at risk of heat, plant it in a place where you can easily create shade.
Reports vary on the exact pH cauliflower prefers. However, they are in agreement that neutral or slightly acidic soil is best. It also requires rich, well-aerated, well-drained soil.
I would not recommend planting cauliflower in an out-of-the-way location. It needs a lot of your attention, so it is best to keep it close by. Pests can quickly accumulate in cauliflower. If you have a chance to go over your plants daily, you can nip these problems in the bud.
Cauliflower is a great candidate for raised beds. Raised beds deter some pests. If your beds are high enough for you to reach while standing, this makes it much easier to pick off the rest of the creepy crawlies. Raised bed soil is often less compacted and better drained. Only the best for these plants!
Cauliflower also benefits greatly from drip irrigation, so a site with access to this is a good choice.
Crop rotation is of the utmost importance: do not plant cauliflower in a bed contained another brassica for at least the past year. Two years is ideal, if you can pull it off. Brassicas include cauliflower, broccoli, kale, radishes, arugula, bok choi, cabbage, kohlrabi, turnips, and many more.
Step by Step Guide to Growing Cauliflower
Remember, cauliflower does not bounce back from stress the way more rugged plants do. Poor conditions at the start of its life will lead to poor yields at harvest time.
Start more seeds then you are going to use. Select the best looking starts for planting out, and discard the rest.
Start seeds in excellent potting soil four to five weeks before planting out. It is best to err on the side of starting the seeds late than early. The plants will be stressed if they get too big before being planted out.
Aim for about 70 degree Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) temperature for germination, and 60 degree Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) after germination. Turn starts often if light is uneven to promote even growth. Make sure to keep soil moist, but not too wet.
With 7-10 days leading up to planting, “harden” your starts. If you can, make the temperature they live in slightly cooler. Bring your starts outside for increasing intervals of time. Initially, place plants outside, in the shade, for 2-3 hours. Gradually increase their exposure to outside conditions. Examine foliage carefully for signs of burning or other distress.
Hungry rodents such as mice and voles can take advantage of hardening starts. The plants they naturally eat may still be dormant, so your starts on the stoop can really make their mouths water. Make sure to keep a look out for these critters. Consider protecting the area if you think it could be an issue.
Planting out Transplants
Plant cauliflower starts out on a mild day. Fall planting dates depend on the frost dates in your own area. Hot climate winter plantings can occur anywhere between September and February.
Plant “early” or “spring” varieties the week or two before your last frost date. It is essential to get the plants in early to avoid midsummer heat. They can tolerate a light frost, so don’t panic if it does freeze.
Once your starts are in, protect the plants. The most common method of doing this it to use milk jugs. Cut off the bottoms and place the tops over each plant. This will help them to grow faster during the cool days of late spring, and give them some frost protection.
Give the plants between 18” and two feet of spacing. Provide 24-36” between rows.
Water transplants well, and water daily for at least the first week after transplanting.
Side dress transplants with compost after transplanting.
Drip irrigation really is the best way to water these fussbudgets. It provides even moisture and it does not get the foliage wet. Drip irrigation on a timer is even better.
In the absence of a drip system, check your soil moisture often. Keep the soil moist, but not too wet. Try not to wet the foliage. If the plants go without water for a period of time, it could lead to buttoning later. If the foliage gets wet, it can lead to disease.
Mulching is a good way to retain soil moisture. However, be careful which materials you use as cauliflower is also sensitive to mold.
Cauliflower is a hungry plant. However, you can’t use just any fertilizer. Fertilizers are labeled according to their Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium content (N-P-K). The numbers will always be in the same order. For example, a typical bat guano, at 10-3-1 is 10% nitrogen, 3% phosphorous, and 1% potassium.
As a general rule of thumb, nitrogen promotes growth of the green part of a plant, and phosphorous promotes flower growth. The cauliflower head is the flowering body of the plant. All plants need nitrogen. However, if you use too much nitrogen, you will get a plant with lush foliage and a small head.
Compost is the best and most balanced fertilizer you can use. Side dress your cauliflower plants with compost once after transplanting and again just as heads are forming.
You may need to look for additional fertilizers if you don’t have an endless supply of compost. When choosing a fertilizer for cauliflower, look for fertilizers that contain both nitrogen and phosphorous. As with compost, the most critical times to fertilize are right after transplanting and right when heads are forming.
I had great success periodically watering cauliflower with a very dilute fish emulsion solution in addition to sprinkling bone meal around the base of the plants. Fish emulsion gives a quick delivery of nitrogen and some phosphorous. Bone meal is quite heavy in phosphorous, but slow to enter the soil. I also side dressed the plants with compost twice during the growing season.
Blanching Cauliflower Heads on the Growing Plants
Cauliflower heads that are exposed to the sun will become discolored. The heads need to be protected with the cauliflower’s own foliage. To do this, gently bunch the outer leaves over the head. Tie them together with a string or a large rubber band.
I have found blanching is easier as a two person job, as it enables me to handle the foliage more gently. Damaged foliage can provide an opportunity for disease to enter the plant.
Some cauliflower varieties are “self blanching,” meaning the outer leaves should grow up to protect the flowering heads on their own. In a perfect world, you do not have to bundle up the leaves for these varieties. Do keep an eye on them just in case the foliage does not grow up perfectly around the heads.
Common Diseases and Disease Prevention
Black rot is a common bacterial disease that infects brassicas. Symptoms include yellowing leaves or leaf loss. Black rot sometimes shows a characteristic pattern of a wedge or V-shaped pale area on foliage. This initial sign is followed by the foliage turning brown and dying. Sometimes stems, leaves, and roots turn black, which is what gives the disease its name. Infected plants will give a poor yield, or no yield at all.
Cauliflower is also susceptible to a variety of fungal or mold diseases. These include stalk rot, among others. You will typically see a cottony white mold on your plants, or small dark bodies on leaves.
Crop rotation is the most essential preventive measure to avoid disease build up.
Avoid Introducing Disease to Your Garden or Farm
Both black rot and fungal infections can persist in soil. You should be very careful where you obtain soil from. Diseases can persist in soil for years. That is why using sterilized soil is important if you suspect disease.
Diseases can also be transported from one garden or farm to another on tools or workers’ clothing. If you are sharing tools with someone else, sanitize them before you use them. Also make sure to decontaminate clothing and shoes if you suspect a neighbor has black rot.
Create a Healthy Environment to Avoid Disease
Cauliflower diseases thrive in excessively moist conditions. You can combat these with good drainage, protection from excessive moisture, and air circulation.
Ensuring some air circulation is one effective measure to prevent disease. This can include pulling back row covering during fair weather, installing a fan in hoop houses, or planting cauliflower in an area that is not enclosed by heavy vegetation.
Minimizing excessive moisture is another method to control the spread of mold. Water plants carefully to avoid wetting foliage, or use drip irrigation. Use row covering or other protection in rainy climates.
Damaged foliage can provide an opportunity for disease to enter. Be tender with your plants. Keep dogs, toddlers, and other forces of destruction out of your beds. Carefully remove mangled foliage.
If any of your plants show symptoms of disease, pull them up and burn them. Do not compost them or leave them in your fields.
Plants that receive lots of compost and other good care taking will have stronger immune systems. They will have more resistance to fungal and bacterial diseases.
Pests and Pest Deterrence
Voles, mice, and other small furry creatures love cauliflower. One summer, my biggest head was eaten down to the stem overnight. I defended the rest of my crop by placing a snap trap at the base of each plant. Outward sloping collars can also protect your heads.
Cabbage root maggots are a serious problem for many brassicas. The insects fly in spring, and lay eggs in the soil. The emerging larvae feed off of plant roots and underground stems. Often you will not see any insect activity until your plants are severely damaged. A healthy looking plant may even fall over like a tree!
The best way to control cabbage root maggots is to protect your beds from flying adults in the spring. Row covering is very effective at this.
If you suspect soil contains root maggots, you can go through it manually and squish the maggots before planting. Obviously this is practical only for small scale growers.
Cabbage worms are another common cauliflower pest. These are tiny little caterpillars that can do a lot of damage. There are two ways to prevent these pests from attacking your precious cauliflower. One is to use beneficial insects.
Another cabbage worm tactic is to know your butterflies. If you see a cabbage moth flying around, kill it! Then, check all of your plants thoroughly for eggs. Remove these eggs manually as you find them. There are several butterfly species that damage brassica plants. The cabbage white is the most common.
Ordinary pests such as slugs and snails love, cauliflower, too. There are many tactics to reduce these pests’ impact including using Slug-O, using beer traps, using raised beds, and keeping the area around your beds clear of grass and weeds. It is usually also necessary to pick over the plants and manually remove these pests.
Crop rotation is extremely important to prevent brassica-loving pests from multiplying over the years. Brassicas (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, kale, arugula, bok choi, mustard, and more) must not be planted in the same soil for successive harvests.
Companion planting cauliflower with tomatoes and celery can theoretically help to repel cabbage worms. In practice, I think this would be tough. Planting with tomatoes would be tricky because tomatoes are a heat loving plant and cauliflower is heat-averse. Celery would be tough because it is an extremely hungry plant, like cauliflower. You would really need to feed the plants exceptionally well to have success with this companion planting.
You can also strengthen plants’ natural defenses by taking the best possible care of them. Plants that are well fertilized with compost and well watered will have more energy to make pest-fighting compounds of their own.
Cauliflower needs to be harvested promptly. The head quality degrades quickly after it reaches its full size.
If the cauliflower heads are left on the plant too long, the curds take on a loose, or rice-like appearance. The head will become discolored and mushy. After all that work, you do not want this to happen!
Figuring out when to harvest cauliflower heads can take a little guess work. Watch the heads carefully as they are growing. When it seems that growth has slowed, harvest them right away. It is best to err on the side of harvesting too early.
Cut the heads off with a sharp knife. Keep the leaves wrapped around the cauliflower head until you are ready to use it.
If a head starts to look like it is opening up, it is not going to get any bigger. You should harvest it even if it is small.
Pull up the rest of the plant after harvesting. It will not produce another head for you. Any tender leaves can be steamed, sautéed, or made into kimchi. Examine the roots for signs of cabbage worms or other pests.
If you have a refrigerator, you can store cauliflower heads there for some time. Cauliflower heads keep better in the refrigerator than they do on the plant. You can keep them in a plastic bag for weeks with no change in quality.
If you have more cauliflower than you can use over a short span of time, try pickling or freezing. Cauliflower takes well to both of these techniques.
How to Freeze Cauliflower
- Important! Start with firm, good quality heads of cauliflower
- Rinse the cauliflower in cold water
- Cut cauliflower heads into florets about 1.5 inches (4 cm) across
- Optional: Soak florets in salt water (4 tsp salt: 1 gallon water) for 30 minutes
- Prepare one large pot of boiling water and one ice-water bath
- Drop florets into boiling water, careful not to add so many that the water cools
- Leave florets in boiling water, covered, for exactly three minutes
- Immediately transfer florets to ice bath
- After three minutes in the ice bath, transfer to bags for freezing
- Remove as much air from the bags as possible (food savers are great, if expensive)
- Freeze the bags in single layers in the freezer
If pickling is more your style, try this cauliflower pickle recipe
Cooking with Cauliflower
There are so many ways to enjoy cauliflower! My personal favorite is cauliflower and early potato curry.
Here are some other recipes you can try:
Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Almond Herb Sauce – I have had great success whole-roasting cauliflower wrapped in foil in a wood stove as well.
Cauliflower au Gratin – This one is definitely “comfort food!”
I hope the long list of cauliflower problems has not deterred every reader from planting this crop. Despite its challenges, growing cauliflower is rewarding. I hope you have great success with this finicky princess!
Allison Sayer lives in a schoolbus on an off-grid property in the Alaskan Copper Valley. She has been part of many amazing projects. These include cooking at a remote nature center, managing a multi-family hoop house, volunteering at a chicken sanctuary, and WWOOFing on a small farm. Through her deep friendships throughout the Alaskan wilderness, she has helped many friends develop their homes and dreams. Allison is currently building up her property with the goal of starting her own microgreen farm.