"Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education." -- Mark Twain
Cauliflower may have a degree, with its snow-white curds shielded under the cover of green leaves, but the humble cabbage cleverly packs its overlapping leaves into a simple, firm head, giving it a long shelf life when it's stored in a cool spot. In spite of their educational differences, they're both members of the cole (aka brassica) family, whose close relatives include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale and kohlrabi -- all highly prized for their nutritional value. Originating in the northeast Mediterranean as early as the first century A.D., cauliflower -- or its ancient equivalent -- impressed Roman historian Pliny as the best-tasting variety of the many types of cabbages growing in Roman fields.
Adding to its mystique, cauliflower is considered more difficult to grow than other members of the cole family, but Texas Gardener magazine assures us the reputation isn't warranted. Like most brassicas, it prefers cool temperatures, so set out healthy transplants at least eight to 10 weeks before our average first frost (Nov. 28), i.e., now.
Check the leaves every few days for aphids, the cabbage looper (a one-inch green worm that will happily eat your plants to the nub), the imported cabbage worm (also ravenous) and the Harlequin bug (a striking black and yellow, shield-shaped insect that multiplies like rabbits). Treat the worms with the biological insecticide Bacillus thurengiensis (Bt), and repeat the application after a rain. Treat the Harlequin bug with pyrethrin-based insecticides or pull up the infected plant(s) and remove it from the garden. Given our damp and humid weather this fall, check also for fungal spots on the leaves and consider treating with an anti-fungal before setting the transplants into the garden.
Cauliflower prefers a soil rich in organic matter at a pH of 6-6.5. A pH below 6 will result in a lower yield, so it's worth taking the time to check and amend the soil if needed. Some varieties, the "snowball types" (+/- 68 days) are self-blanching -- meaning their curds remain white rather than yellowing or bronzing in periods of heat or frost -- but you can ensure the color of white varieties by securing the large surrounding leaves over the curds with a clothespin when they're 3-4 inches wide.
Harvest cauliflower when the curds are 6-8 inches in diameter, and chill immediately. Purple (65 days), orange (68 days) and green varieties are also available, but you may have to grow your own from seed or travel to a larger nursery in Tomball, Austin or Houston to locate transplants. The variety known as 'Romanesco' (75-100 days) has lime-green curds with many pointed pinnacles at the surface of each individual floret. This somewhat smaller and less vigorous variety is of special interest because the shape of each of these florets mimics the shape of the entire head. It's an example of a natural Fibonacci fractal with a self-repeating form on a diminishing scale. Mathematicians might balk at this comparison, though, because the replicas in this cabbage variety don't go on to infinity, but the Romanesco offers a striking illustration of the concept and might even tempt young diners to eat a few bites.
The growing conditions for cabbage resemble those for cauliflower. As with all edibles, the members of this plant family should be moved to a new location in the garden each season, following a set rotation pattern, to avoid insect and disease recurrence. They require at least six hours of full sun, soil enriched with compost and a steady supply of water. All cabbage varieties are a valuable source of vitamin C, potassium, protein, phosphorus and fiber, especially when eaten raw, but red varieties are decidedly more nutritious than green. Red cabbage offers 10 times the amount of Vitamin A than green, almost double the amount of Vitamin C and twice as much iron. Look for the varieties Ruby Perfection (85 days), Red Acre (75 days) and Red Express (63 days).
Recommended green varieties include Early Jersey Wakefield (62 days) and Golden Acre (65 days). If you want to try propagating your own cabbage, consider choosing small, individually sized plant varieties -- Alcosa (72 days), a savoy type; Caraflex (68 days), a pointed mini-cabbage; and Gonzales (55 days), which will produce successive small cabbages after the main head has been cut.
Finally, we arrive at carrots, another nutritional marvel, and the favorite of many fall vegetable gardeners. Raw carrots are naturally sweet, but lightly cooked carrots are even sweeter. Carrots lose very little nutritional value during cooking, which breaks down their tough cellular walls, making some nutrients more usable to the body. Carrots are a particularly good source of beta-carotene, fiber, vitamin K, potassium and antioxidants. The traditional orange colored carrots get their bright color from beta-carotene, an antioxidant that the body converts to vitamin A. This weight-loss friendly food has been linked to lower cholesterol levels and improved eye health, and the carotene antioxidants have been linked to a reduced risk of cancer. Carrots come in several colors, with the orange variety highest in beta carotene and the purple variety -- my personal favorite -- containing both anthocyanins (may help prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, and cognitive decline) and beta carotene,
Carrots aren't hard to grow, but it helps to follow a few tips:
• Carrots produce sugar and terpenoids, with the latter giving them a soapy, bitter flavor. Avoid this by selecting a variety low in terpenoids, such as Scarlet Nantes (65-70 days) and Danvers 126 (75 days), and by growing the seeds when days are warm (+/-70 degrees F) and nights are cool (less than 60 degrees F).
• Carrots take from 14-21 days to germinate -- an eternity to the gardener. Practice patience and daily misting of the seeds, or consider pre-sprouting the seeds and planting them using Fluid Seeding (for instructions, go to https://txmg.org/taylor/2012/03/28/carrots-in-the-home-garden/).
• Carrot seeds need light to germinate. Therefore, if you haven't pre-sprouted the seed, cover them with only a whisper of soil at planting time, and mist/spray them daily until they have germinated and are growing well. Warning: if a heavy downpour of rain occurs after planting, the seeds may never germinate and you should consider starting over.
• Carrots need sandy or loamy soils to grow straight roots. This seems obvious, but if you're planting directly into our native soil (rather than into a raised bed with a lightly textured soil mix), you may want to choose short varieties to avoid distorted roots. Consider the small, round varieties Paris Market (50-68 days) or Thumbelina (60 days).
• Carrots store well in the ground for a time, but to ensure a continuous harvest, practice succession planting by spacing out plantings in two-week increments between now and Nov. 30, and again between Dec. 30 - March 5. Fertilize carrots once a week while they are growing.
Thin the seedlings when they are about one-inch tall to no more than three seedlings per inch for finger carrots; one or two seedlings per inch for carrots that will be harvested young; and one seedling per 1 to 2 inches for larger varieties such as Danvers and Chantenay that will be allowed to develop to full size and be harvested mature for canning or freezing.
The proud cauliflower, the humble cabbage and the leisurely carrot are the superstars of the fall garden, sure to repay your growing efforts in nutritional and aesthetic dividends that should impress even Mark Twain.