I think the first time I felt worthy of calling myself a gardener was a few years ago when I managed to grow my very first own crop of cauliflowers. Brassicas can be difficult as they need to be grown from tiny seeds indoors or in a greenhouse until big enough to plant outside, and once grown into plants they are much loved by all sorts of caterpillars, cabbage flies and buggs. As I don't have a greenhouse and I'm not using any pesticides I always thought they would be too difficult to manage. That is, until one year when I had a bit of extra time and energy and really wanted to try something new and suddenly it happened! I succeeded! Nowadays I just love having different sorts of brassicas in my garden, and perhaps I can inspire you too to try them out?
I begin by planting the seeds in little pluggs indoors sometime after the first week of May. It itches in me to begin earlier, but I know it will inevitably be too cold to harden off the plants before June and so I wait. Firstly I fill seed trays with compost and aim for planting only one seed per plug, water them in with a very fine watering sieve (or spray can) to ensure the soil is moist but doesn't overflow, and then I cover them with clingfilm until the seed has properly germinated. This takes anything from a week to ten days, after which the trick is to keep the seedlings evenly moist at all times. Once the seedlings have developed two pairs of proper leaves I transplant them into little plug pots in new soil. I don't have a cold frame, but this stage would be ideal for transferring the plants from indoors to a cold frame. Instead I carry the trays out in the morning and back in at night for about a week or ten days to get them used to the bright light and cooler temperature outdoors. If it is cold or windy I leave a thin fleece blanket over them as protection while they are outdoors. Only thereafter do I replant them outside in the beginning of June, depending on the night frost having given up the ghost of course!
As I grow the seedlings in little compostable pots that disappear in the soil after a few weeks, I leave them in but remove the bottom so the roots easily gain access to the soil. I find it easier as the tiny seedlings have very fragile roots systems and dislike being disturbed when transplanted. After planting them out under cover, I always disrepair and really doubt that anything will come off it but only a few weeks later the tiny tots have grown into sturdy seedlings. Brassicas are very greedy plants, so I always grow them in succession to peas. You might also want to give them an organic seaweed supplement after they have developed big leaves and stalks, but mostly I get away with only mulching the soil around them with a good layer of grass clippings because prior to planting I always enrich the soil with good quality horse muck compost.
I find that my cauliflower is quite happy under cover for a long while, but unless we have an exceptionally sunny and warm summer they get cranky in the end of July and simply demand more light to produce flower-heads. So by the end of July I remove the fleece tent that has been protecting them from caterpillars and cabbage flies, and leave them out in the open. That said, I have read that cauliflowers do not produce flower heads in hot dry weather either so apparently they are very temperamental and like the temperature and soil moisture to be just right! At this time they really like some extra food, so I keep mulching with grass cuttings and perhaps some organic seaweed extract. Not two weeks along, they suddenly have sprouted big happy flowers to be harvested!
Cauliflower Neckarperle is a beautifully white kind of cauliflower, with long leaves that cover the heads and protect it from sun. For the high-brow gardener it is easy to tie the long outer leaves together over the head with string or twine to bleach the flowers, but as mine were already attacked by caterpillars and buggs I opted out from this practice to give the birds free access to eating the pests. This made my cauliflower heads a bit more yellow in colour, but since we are not running a beauty contest in my garden I really don't mind! The caterpillars really seem to enjoy cauliflower leaves more than flower heads and so we can live with each other without waging chemical warfare in the garden. When the cauliflowers were big enough I harvested and washed them, cutting them into florets and throwing them quickly into boiling water just for a minute before letting them drain and cool. Afterwards I freeze the florets separately on baking paper in the freezer before bagging them and keeping them in the freezer for use later in the winter.
What is left in the garden is the big stalks and leaves from the cauliflower plants. These have been mighty infested with caterpillars, and I find it fascinating just how much they can eat in such a short time. The larvae pictured below are Large White Butterfly larvae, and these are the ones who like the leaves. The smaller slightly neon green caterpillars are from Small White butterflies, and these are more of a problem in the flowerhead as they feed singly and like to burrow deep into the cauliflower itself, leaving little black heaps of poop droppings contaminating the florets in its wake. I know that I should kill them all, but I simply can't make myself do it as they are such beautiful little creatures in their own right. Instead I spend some time marvelling at their hungry pursuits, and then let them move with the whole plants to the compost bin. Next year when we have an abundance of butterflies I shall say as my youngest son did once many moons ago when my first attempt at brassicas failed due to an infestation: "But Mummy, don't worry, it doesn't matter! We have the most fantastic butterfly farm!!"
Clearing up is easy as the roots are shallow and even with my bad back I can simply pull the plants out with roots and all, throw them on the wheelbarrow and take to the compost bin. The combination of woody stems and green leaves are just great for feeding the microbes in the compost, and so it all goes back into the earth two years from now.