On the ficklest of garden vegetables

I think all gardeners have masochistic tendencies.  These tendencies may not be recognized by the gardeners in question:  in point of fact, they may assume they have more of a will to dominate than a will to be subjected by said gardens.  Illusions, I tell you.  If you’re a gardener, you’re wearing a hairshirt.  It just might not be terribly obvious to you.

Case in point:  Cauliflower.  Have you ever grown this one rather ubiquitous member of the brassica family?  Have you ever grown it successfully, I mean?  You know:  having a more than a 75% harvest of your lovingly planted seedlings?  I didn’t think so.

Snowball cauliflower, 31 Oct 2010.

Cauliflower, you see, is the vegetable garden’s diva.  Like all brassica seedlings, they are quite willing (eager, even) to pop out of their seed.  But if something happens along the way (the 70-180 days of its growing season) then, pfft, you surely won’t be harvesting your whole crop, or any of your crop at all, come to think of it.  Too hot?  Sayonara.  Too dry?  Likewise.  Is there a cabbage butterfly within a mile radius of your garden?  That’s a guarantee she’ll find and lay eggs on your plants which will soon enough hatch into little green caterpillars doing their happy poopy dance, even if you’ve grown them under cover.  And considering what space hogs these particular plants are, you might just want to give them a pass.

Crybabies they are.  I think I harvested 5 out of something like 30 plants this year:  these are not great odds.  I tend to plant reliable (to me) open-pollinated varieties (Snowball above, Purple of Sicily, and romanesco).  And I do pay attention to their particular needs (lots of water if it’s dry, lots of space, lots of compost) and I am still only rewarded with a few plants.  Timing is pretty crucial too, did I mention that?  Plant them too early and they come to flower in summer?  THAT is one stink flower you shouldn’t even attempt to eat.  They need the cool weather of fall to tame their wild tendencies (broccoli too) and in point of fact are a great fall crop…should you feel you wish to attempt it.  Just realize fully and well that you’re in for a little…pain.

Here’s a fine treatment:  caramelized in the burning-down preheat of Loven.  These smoky florets became the basis for a creamy potato/cauliflower soup.

20 responses to “On the ficklest of garden vegetables

  1. Cauliflower is the one brassica I’ve never warmed to. Don’t know why as I love every one of its relations. I just wanted to say though that I had a pretty good shake with the piracicaba this year. Stood up to the heat and lack of rain just fine. Didn’t bolt all that quickly, and when it did, the bees loved the flowers, which were about the last blooms around for them to feast on. Also, it doesn’t seem too fussed with the cold we’re having either. And – AND – it was ignored by the cabbage moths. Have you found this to be true? I’m growing more of the easy brassica next year!

  2. I have yet to successfully grow a single brassica, besides kale. We tried lots of cabbage this year and with our hands off (read lazy) gardening method and the affinity slugs seem to have for our garden in general, but especially the cabbages, not a single head survived. I tried desperately in vain yesterday to salvage even one square inch of cabbage from those heads that was not destroyed, but alas.

    And yes, gardening is painful. It reminds me a bit of child birth. You’re really excited when it starts. You keep doing the work required of you, knowing a beautiful gift is on the other end. Then it really starts to hurt and you think “there’s no way, there’s just no way I can finish this.” But then it’s over and you have something beautiful you can hold.

  3. First, let me say that that is one heck of a nice sized head of cauliflower you have there…wow. If my heads would turn out like that I would only need a couple. Unfortunately, I am a real loser when it come to growing cauliflower and never end up with a crop worth mentioning. That said, you made me feel so much better about myself this morning. I thought that I just stunk at growing cauliflower…really, I had know idea that others had similar issues.

    Now I know that my heads will never be that big, not even close, but I might just have to give cauliflower another shot next year. This was the first summer that I did not grow any, mostly out of disgust for how last years crop performed. I think I always plant mine too early like you said, I will have to work on the timing if I grow them next season and quite treating them like broccoli. I love how you are using the oven…amazing.:)

  4. Luckily for me that is one brassica that I don’t like. So I’ve never tried growing it. We do tend to have to sacrifice to Mother Nature though. This year the groundhog ate 9 of my 10 butternut squash. 10% is not a very good yield. Next year they will be behind a fence. I hope it works. It won’t keep the possum out though.

  5. I’ve tried to grow cauliflower, too. I think 1, maybe 2 plants survived. The heads were small, and tasted terrible. No more, for me! And this year, none of my brussels sprouts survived, either, and I planted about 25 seedlings.

  6. I had to surrender in a war with the pooping caterpillars two years ago. I was just not going to win. Glad you had something to harvest even if the odds weren’t that good. The soup sounds wonderful! 🙂

  7. I love califlower!
    I grew romanesco for the first time and all the plants grew well, but I hated the texture and taste.
    Next year I’ll try white and orange.
    I bought a few, huge, delicious white califlower at the local farmers mkt.

  8. Are you loving Loven? So jealous.
    And… “little green caterpillars.” LITTLE?

  9. yeah, it was an exceptionally lousy year for brassica here in MI. but i have grown big, fat caulis, as well as others. rarely; you’re not wrong about that. but it can be done. i think the problem is our corner of the world here in MI. cherries, apples, blueberries, corn? we will kick anyone’s ass for those crops. brassica? certain cultivars? various “delicate” fruit trees? no, not so much. this is why i try to read Southron and West Coast garden blogs regularly. sometimes they post about not being able to grow maple trees (snicker) or violets (snort) etc. i accept that certain things will *always* be a challenge here, no matter how attentive i am to their care. Mo Nature is in charge, not me.

  10. Cauliflowers not so much of a problem for me. I try to plant brassicas with broad (fava) beans or peas in autumn and both can handle our mild (by your standards, cold by ours) Australian winters. Seems to work well…brassicas finish and the beans take over.

    The brassica that kills me is Brussel sprouts…..they kind of do nothing and then bolt when the weather warms up. But I keep trying.

  11. I actually managed to grow three full sized cauliflowers this year! Yay me. I love roasted cauliflower… your’s looks excellent.

  12. I always plant my cauliflower around mid summer and keep it under cover with nurslings until September when things cool down (although it would have been just fine this summer!). That way we get cauliflower in early or late spring and can neglect it. The caterpillars are just beginning to come on when the heads are ready. It’s so, so good!

  13. This makes me feel much better about this year’s cauliflower harvest. 12 plants = 0 cauliflower.

    Suddenly, my hairshirt is less itchy.

    Thanks for sharing. I learn so much about gardening from this blog!

  14. I grew kale this year. 12 beautiful heads of kale that I was trying to keep in the ground until the first hard frost. Didn’t know I was growing kale for the local immigrant rabbit population…

    I went out one morning last week to check on the newly planted blueberry bushes and to add compost to the beds for winter. And surprised 2 brown lasagna pan sized rabbits “breakfasting” on their own individual kale plant. And they had the nerve to walk away. Not hop, not run, just walk away to the alley and wait. Don’t they know I’m an equal opportunity omnivore who would love to dine on rabbit “fed by my garden greens” accompanied by a nice wine?

    So I harvested 9, left a whole one and hoped the rabbits would return to finish off their breakfast. And they did, as I watched them from the kitchen window.

  15. You know, I had the same problems with growing broccoli this summer. I planted 6 plants and only one crowned with a broccoli floret.
    One even got gigantic, but no crown.
    I’m trying cauliflower next year. Now I’m scared!
    PS, I love your oven, it’s so cool!

  16. The greens look a lot like Collard or Mustard.Wonder what they taste like.

  17. So far so good for me this year, although my broccoli is dwarfing the cauliflower and brussel sprouts in the same bed. I didn’t realize how much faster the broccoli would grow vs the cauliflower.

    A couple weeks ago:

  18. I have never tried to grow cauliflower, since I crave it but rarely. However, that shot of yours toasting away in the Loven inspired me to dig around in the crisper for a couple small heads we picked up at the market and get a-roastin’. That’s the sort of thing I could come to crave more often.


  19. Hiya Kate: well, I tend to like my cauliflower oven-roasted and coated with garlic and mustard. In other words, I tend to…sex it up a lot. Otherwise it’s pretty milquetoast. Yeah, I have been growing piracicabia for 3 years now, and I love the stuff…though I do grow 2 other kinds too. I guess I have not noticed that the cabbage bugs ignore it! I wish that were so! Glad you hit on a winner, though.

    Shannon, slugs, ick! You’re right, there’s probably not much you can do besides sprinkling the ground with diatomaceous earth, or ringing the necks of the cabbages with tanglefoot. Both aren’t, you know, hand’s-off gardening at all! Some years we have lots of problems with the whole cabbage family. This year I only had problems with the cabbage side of the cabbage family…other than, of course, the problems that cauliflower always gives me. But I agree, you gotta go through some pain to get something good. It’s kind of the case with everything worthwhile!

    Mike, yeah, you’re no failure! But do yourself a huge favor and start the seeds toward the middle-end of May. Really. You won’t be so sick of seedlings by then too. AND: give them a LOT of room! Maybe you’ll have better luck then. I am telling you though my favorite treatment (other than the roasting) is in a curry stew with sweet potatoes: BOTH will be on your list next year!

    Daphne, I feel for you with that groundhog business. My mom has a family of them living under her deck a mere 15′ from the greenhouse I built her…little buggers can dig into anything. Sacrifices must be made, surely. Most of mine are made at either the cause of inattention or the dingdang chickens getting in and digging things up. Love them but they love to dig in my gardens. And no I am not quite sure if they qualify as “natural” either!

    Oh Debra I could go on and on about Brussels sprouts too but for once (after 5 years) I have a bumper crop of them. Like cauliflower, you just have to find the variety that likes you. Otherwise they just do not perform. After years of playing with some wussy purple heirlooms I have done well with Long Island Improved.

    JoAnn thanks, the soup was good! I am of the opinion that soup can be dinner every day but my family doesn’t think so.

    Elizabeth, yeah I haven’t experimented much with the colored varieties at all…maybe next year. But snowball does do so well for me I probably shouldn’t jinx myself!!

    Now CC you’ve seen my tomato hornworms (4-5″) so yeah, something a weeny inch long is little. Yes still loving the Loven! it’s so nice and warm to stand near on a Nov. day.

    Chidy, MI? I thought you were, uh, a Chi-dy! what gives, are you landed gentry now? This is, you know, the better side of the lake. But I do hear you on tweaking mother nature. I try daily and realize I am not truly in charge, but then again I never assumed I was. I just like a challenge is all.

    Nada, I had considered planting favas in the greenhouse but decided against it because how big those plants get…but I love the idea of co-planting them! And I don’t forget your oranges, sigh… And planting in the fall too, what a concept. Brussels sprouts, you’re right, they can be huge wimps. Luckily I just eat the whole plant like cabbage if it bolts (I chop it really fine, matchstick-y, and give it a quick trip in the skillet). The bunnies like it too.

    Hi Amy, welcome, and congratulations! It can take a while to get the swing of the things. The seed pouches should come with warning labels about how frustrating they can be.

    Annette, I envy your winters! But yeah I think they’re fairly terrific too… I tend to treat my broccoli the way you treat your cauliflower. Broccoli in December! yum.

    Sarah, you’re quite welcome. Yep. Lest you think you suck at gardening it’s best to know we all suck at some things!

    JoAnna, I foresee ugly 24″ high chicken wire fencing in your future. At least kale doesn’t mind a trip in the freezer, unlike so many other veggies. And yeah, bunnies are tasty…I keep telling my daughter that! she’s not buying it!

    Hiya Meems. Sometimes you just get a bad batch of seeds. The first year I grew broccoli I got club root, which is kind of super nasty. Spend some time this fall with augmenting the soil, maybe you’ll have lots better luck next year. The cole family in general are fertilizer pigs, so start early and prosper!

    John, they do taste pretty similar, frankly. You can treat the leaves of all of them the same way…considering we grow them FOR their leaves this makes a lot of sense!!

    cohutt, they look great! I just think they’re really gorgeous plants. I also know how big they do get so I almost never have them growing together…but love to grow lettuce-y things in their shade if the poopy caterpillars aren’t around that is…

    Brett, hmm, roasting is a fine treatment. My brother also steams a crumbled-up head and then (quel horreur) puts it in the food processor with butter and cream…it is amazing that way! I was shocked! But yes, roasting. Very manly, open fire and all hrahhrah!

  20. This year was way too hot. We got one big head, and a bunch of stunted ones. I have an idea to build shady covers for a few beds so certain things don’t get so pummeled by the sun.

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