Cauliflower Power

THE REAL DIRT

March 12, 1995|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

I'm going to grow cauliflower this year. No, I'm not. Yes, I am. At least I'm going to try. There are no guarantees when it comes to raising cauliflower, the fussiest of all crops.

Some vegetables are easy to grow: beans, radishes and tomatoes come to mind. Lettuce is a no-brainer, providing the plants are thinned correctly. But cauliflower? A more demanding veggie, there isn't.

Here's a plant that doesn't like hot weather and can't stand the cold. A plant that can't abide wet feet but won't tolerate dry. A plant that requires close supervision but squawks at being disturbed.

Cauliflower is unforgiving, too. Make one mistake in nursing it along and you can kiss the harvest goodbye. Cauliflower is a delicate plant that will use any excuse to produce disappointing heads, or curds. Forget to water it just once, or disturb the roots while weeding, and the plant goes into a permanent pout.

Give it TLC (Tender Loving Care) or risk TLC (Tiny Little Curds).

Why bother fooling with such a high-strung vegetable? Cauliflower is petulant, precocious . . . and positively scrumptious when raised in one's own back yard. Expensive supermarket produce pales beside the mild, sweet taste of home-grown cauliflower.

The trick is in raising heads that are bigger than a boutonniere.

I had one bumper crop 10 years ago -- big, creamy heads of cauliflower, many weighing 2 pounds or more. Each was the size of a man's cerebellum which is, after all, what the curd resembles.

I've never been squeamish about eating a plant that resembles one's gray matter. Not so Beth, my daughter. During that banner year, whenever I lugged another cauliflower into the house, she'd holler, "Mom! Daddy's growing brains again!"

I wish I had the smarts to grow those brains once more. Recent harvests have produced disappointing yields of scrawny mini-heads. Once, while preparing for a night on the town, I pinned one of those tiny things to my lapel as a joke. My wife was not amused. She made me eat the cauliflower en route to the restaurant.

Nine straight meager harvests have dampened my enthusiasm for raising this vegetable, a member of the cabbage family. Yet I struggle on, intent on cultivating the majestic cauliflower, which Mark Twain called "a cabbage with a college education."

I obey all the rules, honor all the quirks of this prissy plant. I raise my own cauliflower from seed, in individual peat pots, so as not to disturb the sensitive roots. Serious gardeners avoid store-bought seedlings, which are treated roughly by commercial growers and sold in market packs that must be ripped apart, literally, for backyard planting. You might as well plant a stone.

I transplant my seedlings to the garden when they are no more than 3 inches tall. Transplanting larger seedlings disturbs their sensitive roots and can trigger production of tiny cauliflower heads, a process known as "buttoning."

My seedlings go into the ground on May 1, exactly two weeks before the date of the last average frost in my area. Cauliflower has specific temperature demands, growing best between 58 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Any extremes in the weather can cause buttoning.

(Before transplanting cauliflower, make certain each seedling has a central bud, or growth tip. Plants without these buds have gone "blind" and are useless.)

Cauliflower must grow fast to form large, succulent heads. Create a saucerlike depression around the base of each plant, and give the plant 1 inch of water each week -- without fail. Any less can cause buttoning.

Mulch the plants well and weed them carefully. Remember those fussy roots? Disturbing them can cause . . . the b-word.

Shield plants from insect damage with floating row covers, which are available at garden centers. When the cauliflower heads are egg-sized, blanch them with their own leaves by lifting the foliage over the heads and securing them with loose-fitting cloth strips or rubber bands.

Harvest cauliflower when the heads are between 6 and 12 inches across, and remember to parade your crops around the neighborhood.

P.S. If you've got a surplus, give me a call. I'll drive out to pick it myself. Just look for the guy with the funny-looking boutonniere.

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