Hip, hooray, we're past the shortest day, and with only a matter of weeks to go before sowing and planting can commence, I feel like a kid counting down the sleeps until Christmas. Much of this restlessness, of course, is due to my Kings Seeds parcel having arrived in the mail last week and, along with it, the seeds of my bright orange, purple, and neon-green cauliflowers! Truly! Have you seen these creatures?
I first spotted them a month or so ago when I noticed a woman coming out of a green grocer's clutching what looked like an enormous bouquet. On closer inspection, I saw that it was actually three cauliflowers – one purple, one vivid orange, and the other a day-glow green that was much brighter than a Romanesco broccoli could ever be. Since then, I've told anyone who will listen about these astonishing vegetables and my intention to grow them. Some friends have been less than encouraging, suspiciously asking all sorts of tricky questions such as whether the seed is GE or non-organic, F1, or insect-friendly ... gosh there are a lot of spoil-sports out there! They did, though, rather send me dashing to every source I could lay hands on to find out exactly where these colourful gems do originate from, and this is what I came up with.
Colourful caulis are not genetically engineered but, rather, the result of years of controlled cross-breeding. The first orange cauliflower was a mutant which turned up in a field of white cauliflowers in Toronto, Canada, back in the seventies. Following controlled cross-pollination, the seed became available to the public as a hybrid in 1981 (a hybrid will produce seed but the seed cannot be relied upon to produce a plant which is the same as its parent).
Science is all very interesting (and we should, as gardeners, take an interest in such matters) but, to be honest, I'm so looking forward to the growing bit (and the cooking because these caulis are said not to lose their colour when heated) that I'm spending all my time concentrating on how best to prepare their garden bed.
Cauli are more particular than cabbages about what they're fed and, although they like a rich, well-rotted manure and compost base, they'll complain if you feed them too much nitrogen – tending to put most of their energy into leaves rather than curd. Some people suggest growing them, like carrots, in a bed well fertilized for a previous year's crop, but I prefer to give mine moderate amounts of manure (which for me, equates to about a bucket of donkey pooh per square metre), loads of compost (about a third of a bucket mixed in right where the plant is to go), and a couple of handfuls of lime per square metre. Then I dose them up with liquid fertilizer every other week.
Caulis must also be given space, performing well if they have enough room to stretch out. Although I positively cram in leafy veges such as lettuces and silver beet, when transplanting cauli I leave almost an arm's length between plants. I then mulch immediately to suppress competition from weeds and retain moisture (caulis don't like to dry out).
When cauliflower start to heart-up, draw together the outer leaves and secure them over the top of the curd with a loosely tied piece of string (if you're in a hurry, simply snap one or two leaves over the curd). Harvest while the head is tight rather than holding out for maximum weight and then being disappointed because you don't have a nice, tight, well rounded specimen.
Colourful caulis have me wishing I had young children again, because if ever there is a way to gets kids interested in growing and eating vegetables, they are it. Still, not to worry, by the time I have grandchildren, cauli's will probably be available in spots, stripes, and checks!
PS. I've just had a thought – imagine what these crazy caulis will look like in summer pickles – purple chow-chow, any one!