How to Grow Cauliflower from Seed to Harvest
Over the years, cauliflower has carved out a place in our garden as a favorite cool-season annual crop to grow. Especially now that we’ve figured out this brassica’s preferences and quirks – like the ones I’ll share with you today! Follow along to learn how to grow cauliflower. This article will explore different varieties of cauliflower, ideal growing conditions, planting tips from seed or seedlings, and pesky pest control. We’ll also cover how to harvest cauliflower, and plenty of ideas of how to enjoy it in the kitchen.
Psst... All of these tips apply to growing Romanesco too – a tasty and fabulously stunning hybrid between cauliflower and broccoli!
White, orange, green, and purple… Cauliflower comes in several unique hues and varieties! Fun colors aside, be sure to read the variety descriptions and seek out characteristics that sound well-suited for your climate or zone.
For instance, certain cauliflower varieties may be described as being exceptionally heat-tolerant (or slow to bolt); an ideal choice for places prone to temperature swings during the time you plan to grow cauliflower. Other cauliflower varieties may be more cold-hardy. In addition, some will develop more quickly than others, with a range of 50 to 100 days to maturity depending on the specific cultivar. That is an important factor to consider for folks with short growing seasons for a timely harvest!
A few of our personal favorite varieties of cauliflower to grow are Goodman (white), Green Macerata (bright chartreuse green), Cheddar cauliflower (yellow-orange), and Purple of Sicily (deep purple). Other popular cauliflower varieties include: Flame Star (light orange), Graffiti and Depurple (purple), along with Snowball, Early White, and Attribute (white varieties). Experiment to find varieties that grow most happily in your garden! If you’re just getting started and have limited garden space, consider trying just one or two well-known varieties and see how they do.
See 12 different places to buy organic and heirloom garden seeds here.
Does colorful cauliflower taste different?
Whenever I share a photo of our colorful homegrown cauliflower on Instagram, people start to ask “What does orange Cheddar cauliflower taste like?” Well, it doesn’t taste like cheese (lol!) – but it is a tad more sweet, nutty, and creamy than white varieties! Orange and yellow cauliflower also has a higher concentration of Vitamin A. Purple cauliflower is usually mild and slightly sweet. Romanesco has a crunchier texture than cauliflower, and is even more rich, nutty, earthy, and sweet in flavor.
Ideal Temperatures to Grow Cauliflower
Cauliflower is generally considered a cool-season crop, and is admittedly a tad finicky. It thrives in moderate ambient daytime temperatures (in the 50s to 70s) and consistently cool soil in the 60’s. While cauliflower is relatively cold-hardy, sudden freezing conditions and temperature swings may trigger the plant to ‘bolt‘ (begin to flower or go to seed) and thus fail to develop a decent edible head. Similarly, prolonged or unexpected high heat can cause cauliflower to bolt or ‘button’ – when it forms several small heads rather than one large compact one. These proclivities can make cauliflower a challenging crop to grow, especially for beginners! But don’t give up.
The best time of year to grow cauliflower
Planting cauliflower at the right time is one of the biggest keys to success! Yet the best time to plant cauliflower varies depending on your climate and growing zone. Reference your Homestead and Chill planting calendars for exact dates, for every zone!
In warmer climates with little-to-no winter frost, plant cauliflower in the fall for a winter to early spring harvest. Gardeners in colder zones can plant cauliflower either in early spring or wait until late summer, avoiding the peak heat of summer or freezing winter. If you’re in the latter group, it may take a few seasons experimenting with growing cauliflower both in the spring and fall to see what works best for you.
HOW TO GROW CAULIFLOWER
Starting cauliflower seeds indoors
Growing cauliflower from seed? Simply follow common seed-starting best practices: use a light, fluffy, sterile seed starting mix, provide warmth and consistent moisture to aid in seed germination, and supply ample bright light to keep the seedlings healthy and strong. If you’re new to growing from seed, be sure to stop by our Seed Starting 101 guide for more in-depth tips.
For spring planting, most cauliflower seed packages recommend starting seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks weeks before your last spring frost date. On the other hand, you can either start cauliflower seeds indoors or plant them outside (direct sow) in late summer for a fall/winter crop.
Here in zone 9b/10a, we start cauliflower seeds in our greenhouse (essentially indoors) in mid August, transplant the seedlings outdoors in late September to early October, and harvest heads December through February – depending on the variety.
Planting cauliflower seedlings outdoors
Whether you’re planting seedlings you raised yourself or those purchased from a local nursery, transplant seedlings on a temperate day and when there is no extreme weather in the forecast for the coming week. Also, be sure to harden off indoor-raised seedlings before transplanting them outside. If you do opt to buy nursery seedlings, remember that bigger isn’t always better! Large seedlings may be overgrown and root bound in their small pots. Choose the most tender, fresh, and healthy-looking seedlings. Check them for pests or signs of disease before bringing them home.
- Spring planting: In spring, plant cauliflower seedlings outdoors about 2 to 4 weeks prior to your zone’s last spring frost date. Be prepared to protect outdoor seedlings from freezing weather with frost row covers, cloches, halved plastic milk jugs, or other forms of frost protection!
- Summer/fall planting: For a fall crop, transplant cauliflower seedlings outdoors 6 to 8 weeks before your first fall frost date. However, it is best to wait until daytime temperatures are regularly below 75°F. Remember, cauliflower plants prefer cool soil! Therefore, plan to provide some shade (e.g. using shade cloth) during high heat as needed.
Choosing a planting location
- It is often recommended to plant cauliflower in full sun – a great choice! However, you can also grow cauliflower in a location with partial shade, which can help to buffer the soil against temperature swings in unpredictable climates.
- Follow the spacing recommendations provided with your chosen varieties, averaging about 2 feet apart. Yes, cauliflower gets big!
- Cauliflower grows best in soil that has ample rich organic matter. Amend the garden bed or planting area with a fresh top-dressing of well-aged compost before planting.
A key to successfully grow cauliflower is to be steady and consistent, with as many factors as possible: temperature, water, and soil nutrients. A sudden swing in any of these may cause the cauliflower head to not develop properly.
- Mulch: After planting, apply a layer of mulch 1 to 2 inches deep on top of the soil around the base of the plant. Mulch will help maintain even and consistent moistures levels, and also reduce soil temperature fluctuations. Cauliflower plants have shallow roots, so this can make a huge impact! We use compost as mulch. Shredded leaves, newspaper, wood chips or straw are other fine choices, though straw is most likely to harbor pests. Read more about the pros and cons of 8 popular types of garden mulch here.
- Water: Cauliflower enjoys consistently moist soil, so don’t let it dry out! In fact, drought or irregular water can lead to “buttoning” or loose head formation. Aim for about 2 inches of water per week, rainfall and supplemental water combined. We supply deep, slow water via drip irrigation twice per week for our established winter cauliflower, and up to three times per week during warmer fall weather.
- Fertilizer: In addition to adding compost to the planting area, we also apply mild, balanced, slow-release fertilizers (e.g. alfalfa meal, kelp meal, and neem meal, or this all-purpose option) to our raised beds before planting cauliflower. Following a no-till method, we simply scatter our chosen fertilizers over the top of the soil, lightly scratch it into the surface, add the compost mulch layer on top, and water it all in. We also feed cauliflower with homemade compost tea once or twice during the growing season.
Make a plan and be ready to protect cauliflower from temperature swings outside of its “happy zone” as they arise. If frost is on the horizon, throw over some frost cover or other protective materials. If temperatures over 80°F come knocking, keep the soil cool with ample moisture, mulch, and shade cover if needed. This is particularly important once the cauliflower heads have started to form! We love to use these hoops to support various row covers in our garden, including shade cloth, insect netting or frost blankets.
Blanching: How to Prevent Cauliflower Head Discoloration
No, I don’t mean blanching cauliflower in boiling water on the stovetop after harvest! When cauliflower is growing in the garden, the heads may become mildly sunburned and discolored when exposed to direct sunlight. White cauliflower varieties are especially prone to discoloration, turning yellow, brown, or even slightly pink and purple – though the same can happen to more colorful varieties as well.
An easy way to prevent discoloration is by ‘blanching’: the act of tucking the plant’s large leaves over and around the developing cauliflower head to protect it from the sun. Young cauliflower heads are often wrapped up naturally by the plant, but become increasingly exposed as they mature. One simple way to blanch your cauliflower is to clip overlapping leaves together using clothespins. Or, get creative and tie them together in other fashions! Blanching cauliflower can also help to prevent bitter flavors from developing.
Cauliflower Pest Control
Cauliflower plants are prone to a number of common garden pests. The most prevalent include aphids, cabbage worms or caterpillars, and cabbage loopers. Small green caterpillars can do a number on the plant leaves, while aphids will infest both the leaves and hide within the cauliflower head itself. Slugs and snails are also attracted to cauliflower, especially when the leaves are small and tender. Cauliflower may also become infected with various mildews, such as downy or powdery mildew. Learn how to prevent or treat powdery mildew here.
The best way to manage pests on cauliflower (and any plant, really!) is to be proactive. Routinely inspect plants for signs of pests, including the underside of leaves and in the centermost area where the head develops. The earlier you can spot an issue and take action, the better the outcome.
Here are our top cauliflower pest control tips and resources:
- As a member of the brassica plant family, cauliflower is irresistible to cabbage white butterflies and cabbage moths. They lay eggs on the plants, and their larvae become cabbage worms/loopers. Cover cauliflower with insect netting supported over hoops, or draped lightly right on top of the plants. This can also help prevent wild birds, aphids, and other pest insects from accessing the plants.
- If you spy caterpillars on your plants, pick them off by hand. Holes in the leaves and little brown spots of poop are signs that a caterpillar is nearby. For heavy infestations, use organic Bt spray (Bacillus thuringiensis) to kill caterpillars. Learn 8 ways to get rid of cabbage worms here.
- Aphids are especially tricky to manage since they can hide within the head so proficiently. Therefore, it is especially critical to catch an aphid infestation early and nip it in the bud! When we see a few aphids on our cauliflower, I blast them off with water. For larger populations or those inside the head, I apply a mild DIY insecticidal soap (directly on the aphids) and rinse it off with water thereafter. See 9 ways to organically control aphids here.
- Neem oil spray can also be used to manage pests on cauliflower, which can be effective against fungal disease/mildews, aphids, and other small soft-bodied insects. However, a heavy application of neem oil on the cauliflower head itself could result in lingering oily residue or flavor. Neem oil requires careful preparation and application to be effective.
- Struggling with slugs and snails? Our best tips to manage them are outlined here.
Growing Cauliflower in Containers
Yes, you can grow cauliflower in containers! Simply follow all of the best practices and tips described in this article. Cauliflower plants do get quite large, spanning about 2 to 3 feet in diameter, so choose a container that is large enough to support a big plant and keep it happy. Providing consistent and even moisture is likely the largest challenge to successfully grow cauliflower in containers. Pots are prone to either dry out more quickly or become overly soggy, depending on the type of container. Use well-draining potting soil, a container with plenty of drainage holes, and mulch to keep the shallow roots damp and protected.
When to Harvest Cauliflower
The best time to harvest cauliflower is when the head has developed to a decent size, but is still nice and tight. If you wait past the ‘prime time’, the cauliflower head will start to loosen and spread (as shown in the photos below). This isn’t a big deal for the average home gardener! Looser heads are still perfectly edible, albeit slightly ‘imperfect’. I usually wait until I see it juuuust starting to loosen in form. However, prolonging harvest too long will cause your cauliflower to begin to flower – and become increasingly bitter in taste. Check near-ready heads daily! They change quickly.
How to Harvest Cauliflower
To harvest cauliflower, use a knife to carefully cut the main stalk just below the head. Boom! Beautiful. After harvest, we sometimes soak the head of cauliflower in a bowl of cool water to dislodge any sneaky insects that may be present before storing it away in the fridge.
What you do with the plant next is up to you. After harvesting the main head, some cauliflower varieties will continue to grow and develop small side shoots or mini-heads. (This is more common with broccoli, but can happen with cauli too!) By leaving the plant behind, you can also continue to harvest and eat the leaves. Yes, cauliflower leaves are totally edible! When it comes time to completely remove the plant, we use a small hand saw to cut the stem at or just below the soil line and leave the roots to decompose in place, no-till style.
Ways to Eat or Preserve Cauliflower
The mild flavor and forgiving texture of cauliflower makes it highly versatile to use in the kitchen! One of our absolute favorite ways to enjoy cauliflower is by roasting it in the oven with fresh garden herbs and garlic. The process transforms vegetal or grassy flavors into exceedingly sweet, nutty, and downright delicious ones. Check out our easy roasted cauliflower recipe here.
Other ways to use cauliflower:
- Sautéed or pan-fried with extra virgin olive oil, butter or coconut oil along with garlic, salt and pepper. It’s amazing on its own, or mixed with other seasonal veggies. I personally enjoy my cauliflower with slightly el dente over mushy-done!
- Raw. Enjoy whole florets added to green salad, pasta or rice salad, dipped in hummus, or our favorite – a dill and garlic yogurt dipping sauce.
- Add cauliflower to soup, stews, chili, and more! When it’s in season, we incorporate cauliflower into our vegan 3-bean chili and this biryani rice stuffed squash recipe.
- Preserve cauliflower by fermenting it! Use this recipe and process to transform cauliflower florets into tangy dill ‘pickles’. Then enjoy fermented cauliflower as-is, or in salads.
- Another way to preserve excess cauliflower is to freeze it. Cut the head into bite-size florets, wash and allow to air dry, and then spread them out on a baking sheet – with the pieces not touching one another. Put the tray in the freezer for several hours or overnight. Then package the individually-frozen florets together in an airtight freezer container for long-term storage. Work quickly so they don’t defrost in between. (This trick prevents them from clumping and freezing together!)
- Prepare some trendy cauliflower rice! Here is a how-to for simple cauliflower rice, or try this Mediterranean cauliflower rice recipe.
- Check out these Sweet and Sour Cauliflower “Wings” from plant-based food blogger Jessica.
- Feeling like a fiesta? Try this delicious-sounding seasoned Cauliflower Walnut Taco Meat from Sweet Potato Soul.
- Try this drool-worthy recipe for creamy mashed cauliflower with garlic and herbs; a perfect low-carb mashed potato copycat.
When it comes to enjoying cauliflower leaves, we generally eat the inner tender leaves, treating them much like kale or collard greens. They’re wonderful sautéed and in soups or stews. The tough, older, outermost leaves usually go to the chickens or compost, but they’re edible too! I suggest de-stemming them though.
- Cauliflower is a cool-season crop that grows best when soil temperatures are steady in the 50’s to 60’s (Fahrenheit).
- Plant cauliflower in full sun to partial shade with ample room, in soil rich amended with organic matter and compost.
- Provide consistent water, mild slow-release fertilizer, and buffer the plants against temperatures swings.
- Be proactive to manage pest populations early.
- Harvest when heads are formed but still tight.
Well folks, I think I’ve shared every tip and trick I know to successfully grow cauliflower! With this information, I hope you’re able to grow and harvest some big, beautiful, tasty cauliflower of your own. Enjoy experimenting with a variety of colors, or just stick to classic white for now. Please let me know if you have any questions, and come report back on how your growing season goes. Finally, please pin or share this article if you found this information valuable!
Thank you for the detailed growing guide. We had rats wipe out our cool season veggies this year but this inspires me to try again in the fall. I really want to grow cauliflower, broccoli and most of all, cabbage. I am working on various covers to better protect the beds from vermin. Weirdly, they are ignoring the plants in the garden now. So hopefully our spring veggies will be a great success.