How to Grow Cauliflower

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Cauliflower, which like broccoli is a member of the cruciferous family, contains an impressive array of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytochemicals
  • Health benefits include cancer prevention, heart and brain health, lowering inflammation, supporting detoxification and aiding digestion
  • Guidelines for planting, pest control, harvesting and storage of cauliflower are included

By Dr. Mercola

Cauliflower, which like broccoli is a member of the cruciferous family, contains an impressive array of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytochemicals. It's a good source of vitamin K, protein, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, magnesium, phosphorus, fiber, vitamin B6, folate, pantothenic acid, potassium and manganese.

Cauliflower is also packed with natural antioxidants such as vitamin C, beta-carotene, kaempferol, quercetin, rutin, cinnamic acid and others. Antioxidants are nature's way of providing your cells with adequate defense against attack by excessive amounts of reactive oxygen species. As long as you have these important micronutrients, your body will be better equipped to resist damage caused by everyday exposures to pollutants, chronic stress and more.

Without an adequate supply of antioxidants to help squelch excess free radicals you raise your risk of oxidative stress, which leads to accelerated tissue and organ damage. Adding to cauliflower's appeal is its versatility. You can eat it raw, add it to salads or use it in your cooking. Cauliflower can even be seasoned and mashed as an alternative to potatoes.

Top Health Benefits of Cauliflower

Because of its beneficial effects on numerous aspects of health, cauliflower can easily be described as a superfood. Some of its most valuable health benefits include:

Fighting cancer1,2,3

Cauliflower contains the cancer-fighting compounds sulforaphane and isothiocyanates, the former of which has been shown to kill cancer stem cell responsible for metastasis or spread of cancer.

Boosting heart health4

Sulforaphane in cauliflower also helps improve blood pressure and kidney function. Scientists believe sulforaphane's benefits are related to improved DNA methylation, which is crucial for normal cellular function and proper gene expression, especially in the easily damaged inner lining of the arteries (endothelium).

Lowering inflammation5

Chronic inflammation is a hallmark of most disease. Cauliflower contains anti-inflammatory nutrients to help keep inflammation in check, including indole-3-carbinol, an anti-inflammatory compound that may operate at the genetic level to help prevent the inflammatory responses at its foundational level.

Boosting brain health6

Cauliflower is a good source of choline, a B vitamin known for its role in brain development. It also helps improve cognitive function, learning and memory. It may even diminish age-related memory decline and your brain's vulnerability to toxins during childhood, as well as conferring protection later in life.

Supporting detoxification7

Cauliflower helps your body's ability to detoxify in several ways. It contains antioxidants that support Phase 1 detoxification along with sulfur-containing nutrients important for Phase 2 detox activities. The glucosinolates in cauliflower also activate detoxification enzymes.

Aiding digestion

Cauliflower is an important source of dietary fiber for digestive health. But that's not all. According to the World's Healthiest Foods:8

"Researchers have determined that the sulforaphane made from a glucosinolate in cauliflower (glucoraphanin) can help protect the lining of your stomach. Sulforaphane provides you with this health benefit by preventing bacterial overgrowth of Helicobacter pylori in your stomach or too much clinging by this bacterium to your stomach wall."

Cauliflower — A Cold Season Crop

Cauliflower tends to require a little more care and attention than some other vegetables, but with some preplanning, it's an excellent cool weather crop. Attempts to grow cauliflower in temperatures above 80 degrees F will usually fail. You can start your seeds in late summer, however, if you plant them indoors in a cool spot. As long as your local temperature does not fall below 20 degrees F, you can grow cauliflower over winter and harvest in the spring.

Cauliflower is also finicky when it comes to soil quality. It requires high-nutrient soil and must be well watered throughout the growing season. There are a number of different varieties to choose from, depending on your local climate and desired maturity rate, including the following:9

  • Early-season varieties such as Snow Crown, Denali and Panther, which mature in about 70 to 80 days. The heads of these varieties tend to be smaller, less dense and less sweet, however
  • Mid-season varieties, which need more than 80 days to mature, include Candid Charm, Skywalker, Graffiti (a purple-colored variety) and Orange Burst (an orange-colored variety that contains higher amounts of vitamin A)

Start From Seed

To identify the recommended planting dates for climactic zone, check out Mother Earth News' vegetable garden planner.10 As a general rule, you'll want to start your seeds four to six weeks before the last frost date. Cauliflower will grow best if started in seed trays with seed compost rather than regular multipurpose compost.

Sow one or two seeds per cell at a depth of about one-half inch. If both seeds germinate, select the most robust seedling and snip off the weaker one with a pair of shears. Avoid pulling it out as this may damage the roots of the remaining plant.

Gently wet the seed tray and place it in a greenhouse, cold frame or windowsill until the seeds germinate, which takes about four weeks. Keep the seeds moist but avoid overwatering, as when the plant is forced to search for water, it forces a more robust root system. Excessive heat in combination with insufficient light will result in tall "leggy" seedlings, so make sure there's plenty of light without cooking the plants. Quick Crop offers the following suggestion:11

"If you are starting them off on a windowsill make sure they get as much daylight as possible. You can make a makeshift light box by placing a sheet of reflective tinfoil on the room side of the seedling tray. This will reflect daylight onto the darker side of the plant. If the plants are on a heat bench or in a propagator and they are looking spindly, turn the heat down and try to give them as much light as possible."

Planting Guidelines

Before transplanting the seedlings into your garden, harden them off for seven to 10 days by placing them outdoors, starting with a couple of hours and slowly increasing the time each day. Once they're ready to be transplanted, keep the following guidelines in mind:

Transplant on an overcast day

Ideally, transplant your cauliflower on an overcast day or in the evening to prevent wilting.

Plant and row spacing

Space each plant about 20 to 25 inches apart, with the same amount of distance between rows. Placing them too close together will result in smaller heads, so avoid the temptation to crowd them together.

Soil considerations

Cauliflower requires soil rich in nitrogen and potassium with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Prepare your bed by mixing in a generous amount of organic compost. Soil should also be well compacted, so it's best to prepare your planting bed a few weeks or months in advance. Alternatively, be sure to tamp the soil down firmly with your boot around the plant's roots.

Watering

An hour before transplanting, water the plant trays. Water again once they're in the ground but avoid soaking. Mulch will slow down evaporation and protect against heat. Make sure the plants stay moist throughout the growing season. Bitter cauliflower is a sign of insufficient watering. Creating a small dam around the plant will help prevent water runoff.

Pest prevention

Use a featherweight row cover to protect the plants from pests.

Fertilizer recommendations

Every two weeks, apply a natural high-nitrogen fertilizer such as liquid seaweed feed (best), fish emulsion, compost tea or a combination of seaweed and chicken manure pellets. If you notice browning of the heads or if the plant develops distorted leaf tips, the plant is likely lacking in boron.

Apply a foliar feed like liquid seaweed extract once every two weeks until the symptoms clear up. Planting a fall cover crop of vetch or clover will help enrich the soil with boron for the next season.

Blanching

If you're growing a regular white variety, once the flower heads reach a size of about 2 inches, be sure to provide some shade if you want to avoid yellowing of the heads. Rodale's Organic Life provides the following suggestion:12

"Prepare plants for blanching on a sunny afternoon when the plants are totally dry, because damp heads are more susceptible to rot. Just bend some of the plants' own leaves over the head and tuck them in on the opposite side, or secure the leaves at the top with soft twine, rubber bands, or plastic tape. Use enough leaves to keep out light and moisture, but allow room for air circulation and for the heads to grow."

Pest Control

Common pests that like to attack cauliflower include:

Cabbage root fly: Eggs are laid at the base of the seedling and the subsequent maggots burrow down and eat the roots. Symptoms include wilt, interrupted growth and a bluish tint to the leaves. The best way to avoid them is to use a micromesh row cover to prevent the flies from laying eggs on the plant.

Make sure the netting is properly sealed all-around the plant. Alternatively, use cabbage collars, which cover the soil around the base of the plant. Another alternative is to introduce more nematodes into your garden, as they feast on the cabbage root fly's larvae.

Cabbage white caterpillars: These caterpillars will kill your cauliflower plant within days, so look for yellow eggs underneath the leaves, and if you find them, simply brush them off. A row cover will prevent the butterfly from laying its eggs as well.

Cabbage whitefly: While this aphid is less destructive than other pests, they can cause your plant to mold. Check the underside of the leaves and pick off any white insects. Also remove any leaves that turn yellow as they could harbor aphid eggs. The sticky substance left by the whitefly can be safely washed off with a strong blast of water.

Clubroot: Clubroot cysts can survive in soil for up to nine years, so if your garden ever gets infested, know your efforts to grow cauliflower or any other cabbage family member may be thwarted for some time. Typically, clubroot will be introduced via infected transplants or by tracking in infected soil from another area.

Symptoms include poor growth and leaves that wilt and turn reddish-purple. The roots will have foul-smelling swollen deformed growths attached to them. Advanced infestation will cause the roots to dissolve into a slimy pulp.

To minimize spread, burn the affected roots; do not use them in compost. If you know you have an infestation, add lime to the soil the year before you're planning to plant any cabbage family variety as clubroot thrives in acidic soil conditions. Using a raised bed can minimize the risk as well by preventing over-wetting.

Harvesting and Storage

Your cauliflower is ready for harvest once the heads reach a size of 6 to 12 inches in diameter. Be sure to harvest while the heads are tight and unopened. Using a sharp knife, cut the stem just below the head, leaving a few leaves as protection for the curds. Should your crop get hit by a heavy frost, harvest the frozen heads and cook them immediately. They'll be inedible if you allow the heads to thaw and refreeze.

Cauliflower is best used right away, but can stay fresh for a few weeks if refrigerated. Another alternative, if you need to store the cauliflower for a longer period of time, is to uproot the whole plant and hang it upside down in a cool, dry place. This way, the cauliflower will stay fresh for up to one month without refrigeration.

How to Boost Sulforaphane Content

Like broccoli, cauliflower contains sulforaphane, which is easily lost through improper cooking. Boiling or blanching cauliflower causes the greatest loss of antioxidants,13 so your best bet appears to be steaming. Unfortunately, research has not identified ideal steaming times for cauliflower.

Moreover, research14 reveals different varieties of cauliflower respond differently to various levels of heat and cooking times. In one study, blanching purple cauliflower at 70 degrees C significantly increased sulforaphane content compared to 50 degrees  C, while immersion time had no significant influence. In Roman cauliflower, on the other hand, both temperature and immersion time played a role.  

Research15 shows steaming broccoli for three to four minutes is ideal, so I'd suggest using this as a general starting guideline for cauliflower as well. You can also boost the sulforaphane content of your cauliflower (as well as broccoli and other members of the cabbage family) by eating it with a myrosinase-containing food.16 Foods containing this important enzyme include:

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