Love Roasting Cauliflower? Learn How to Grow These Brassicas in Your Own Backyard
When that craving strikes, all you have to do is harvest a head from your personal culinary garden.
Vegetables just seem to taste that much better when you pluck them out of your own backyard; luckily, growing most varieties at home is a breeze. This is especially true for cauliflower: These tasty brassicas are simple to plant and care for, and that's true whether you're an expert or a farming novice. To walk us through the basics of growing these delicious, good-for-you plants, we tapped two farming experts who know a thing or two about cauliflower. Ahead, their best tips for cauliflower success from seed to harvest.
Start cauliflower seeds indoors.
"For a fall crop in my area (I'm in zone 6!), start the seeds in early June; you can do another succession or two of plantings a few weeks after for continued harvests," says Emma Jagoz of Moon Valley Farm in Maryland. "I like to seed them in trays with 72 cells and let them grow in the greenhouse for four to six weeks before transplanting in the field." She notes that colder locales may need to start their seeds in May; warmer regions can begin in July or even August for an over-wintered crop. "Spring crops can also work for certain areas (we're a bit too hot to get consistently good results), and you'd want to start those seeds in February or March," she notes.
Don't wait too long to get going.
Cauliflower doesn't thrive in the heat, "which makes them difficult to get established in our hot Mid-Atlantic climate in July," says Jagoz. The best way to get your brassicas through a steamy season if you do get a late start? "Dip your seedlings in kaolin clay, which turns them white and helps cool-weather-loving crops like cauliflower transition, despite the heat," she explains.
Plant with care.
When it's time to put your sprouts in the ground, prepare rows at least two feet apart, offers Jagoz; then space plants at intervals of 18 inches. Choose a sunny spot ("Cauliflower need full sun, which, ideally, is eight to 10 hours of sunlight per day," notes Jagoz) and make sure your earth is rich in organic matter. "They prefer soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7, and they like regular irrigation," she continues. It's also important to shield the seedlings with a thin row cover at the time of planting. This reduces pest intervention—but also be sure to "uncover and weed the crop regularly," notes Jagoz. "Use a thicker frost protective row cover if a hard freeze is in the forecast."
Want to grow white cauliflower? Look for self-blanching varieties.
Beyond white, cauliflower comes in a few bright, flavorful varieties, like Graffiti (violet) and Cheddar (orange). But if the ivory kind's heads turn yellowish or purple while growing, that may be a sign of too much sun. "Look for a self-blanching type, like Denali, which has leaves that curl inward and shield it," says Annie Novak, the founder and director of Growing Chefs, in New York City. If you've planted a different one, protect it with row cover (gauzy sheeting), or gently tie larger leaves around exposed florets with jute.
Watch for pests and disease.
Flea beetles, cabbage worms, and loopers are the three major pests to watch for; they enjoy munching on these vegetables. "They are especially attracted to plants that are stressed from heat, poor soil, or inconsistent watering," notes Jagoz. As for disease prevention? She says to monitor your cauliflower for black rot, a common brassica disease; practice crop rotation to prevent it in the first place, she notes. Switching up where you plant foods like cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, radishes, and turnips, every three years can keep critters away for good.
Be methodical when you harvest.
As for when you can expect to harvest your mature cauliflower heads if you begin the process indoors? "Starting the seeds inside or in a greenhouse in early June would get you a late September or early October crop, depending on weather conditions and your climate zone," Jagoz adds, noting that a mature cauliflower head should be full and tight. Remove them before the "curds" become loose, she advises, which should be about 65 to 70 days post-transplant. To take your full-grown brassicas out of the ground, use a sharp harvest knife—Jagoz likes the Lettucie Field Knife from Johnny's Seeds ($12, johnnyseeds.com)—and cut the stem below the head to trim off the leaves. You shouldn't, however, discard them: "The leaves and the stem are edible and delicious, so you can save them to eat, as well," she says.