Cauliflower’s prima donna reputation is slightly overrated. Yes, it does need consistent moisture and fertile soil, it is susceptible to freezing weather and is stressed by heat but hey, we all have our comfort zones. If you plant the right variety at the right time under the right conditions it will reward you with a large, edible head with a sweet flavor that barely hints of its relation to other members of the cabbage family. White cauliflower is what most gardeners and cooks are familiar with but several varieties produce lovely heads of purple, green and orange.
So how do you keep cauliflower happily growing in your garden? Start with quality, 4-6 week old transplants. Set them in the garden 10-12 weeks before the first freeze in your area and stick with quality hybrid varieties. Here in Texas cauliflower performs better in the fall, when it matures as the weather cools off. Be sure to mulch plants well to help moderate moisture and soil temperature.
You can easily grow your own cauliflower transplants from seed. However, it is a little late for that this year. If you want to grow your own transplants you need to start your plants 16 to 18 weeks before the first freeze. If you have to buy transplants, look for strong, healthy transplants at the nursery, but resist the temptation to purchase cauliflower that has already formed a miniature bud. You may think that tiny bud is a head start, but in reality it means that the plant is probably stunted and its growth will never catch up enough to support the formation of that large head of cauliflower that you are anticipating.
Like broccoli, cauliflower grows best in loose, fertile soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.5 and responds well to regular applications of soluble fertilizer. Slow, steady growth is essential. Development will be stunted if plants are stressed by lack of water, lack of fertility, too much heat or too much cold and the end result will be puny, unimpressive heads. Plants can handle a light frost but be sure to protect them if temperatures are expected to fall below 28°F.
White varieties will need to be blanched to maintain their pure white color and mild flavor. This is simple to do: when the head starts to form wrap the inner leaves around it to keep the sun from discoloring it. Secure the leaves with twine, a rubber band or clothespins. Colored varieties do not require blanching but they are best served raw or roasted; if cooked in water they tend to lose their color.
The following varieties are recommended for Texas gardens (number in parentheses indicates days to harvest from setting transplants in the garden):
‘Snowball Y’ (70-80 days): an open-pollinated variety that produces flavorful, 6” heads; not as early as most white hybrids
‘Snow Crown’ (50-60 days): a popular All-America Selections winner that grows well in all regions of Texas; early-maturing plants produce large, uniform heads
‘Graffiti’ (80 days): striking purple heads are worth the extra time in the garden; color fades when cooked in water so best served raw, roasted or lightly steamed
‘Vitaverde’ (76 days): this hybrid “broccoflower” possesses characteristics of both broccoli and cauliflower; suitable for fresh-eating, roasting and stir-fries
‘Cheddar’ (58-68 days): mild-flavored, orange heads contain high levels of beta-carotene
‘Veronica’ (78 days) and ‘Tipoff’ (72 days): these lime-green Romanesco-type cauliflowers of Italian origin produce unusual spiral-shaped heads