18 Jun 2012

Perennial Cauliflowers, my growing year

Almost a year ago I was intrigued to discover that Victoriana Nurseries in Kent offer plug plants of a perennial cauliflower that they call 'Cut and Come Again' and which are described as producing up to ten mini heads from each plant.  I imagined that these would be tiny 'designer' heads of cauliflower when I planted the plugs 90cm apart in my walled fruit border. The reality was slightly different, but the journey to maturity was fascinating.

It's a source of amusement to me that, rather as the fashion industry has to have 'this season's colour', now that veg growing is the trend du jour there are seasonal topics here also.  Last year it was edible flowers, with some supermarkets offering tiny salad bags of flowers at exorbitant prices. This year's buzz seems to be perennial veg, as mentioned in numerous books and magazines. Shortly after I planted the cauli plugs, I was invited to a little soirĂ©e of gardeners and garden writers and managed to silence the room when I mentioned that I was growing perennial cauliflowers.  Gracious, what a novelty! Perennial veg!  So, yes, just once I have managed to be on the forefront of something trendy although, of course, perennial veg is not new at all. Martin Crawford, Director of the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon and best known for creating his forest garden, has written a book on the subject which I'll review this week because it's worth knowing about.

I've also come across this vegetable in Alys Fowler's book 'The Edible Garden'. She describes it as an old-fashioned cottage garden vegetable and writes:
'Perennial broccoli is actually a cauliflower masquerading as broccoli. Each spring it produces a small, central cauliflower; cut this off and it sends the plant into production of many broccoli-like side shoots.'
The only known variety is called Perennial Nine-Star Broccoli (due to the number of side shoots) which is the type supplied to me by Victoriana Nurseries.

It's recommended to place the plants in a sheltered position although they proved to be extremely vigorous in the funnelling winds of the veg patch fruit borders. They needed staking as they grew to be over 4 ft tall and, if left to go over and flower at the end of the season, can reach over 5 feet and be an absolute bee magnet.  Mine were well over 3 ft in width, which somewhat surprised me as the planting distance is advised to be 90cm. To get round this, I kept whipping the very large lower leaves off - they were drooping and providing shelter for wintering slugs and snails anyway.  The plants will go on producing for five years so it makes sense in the fourth year to save the seed from one plant and then start at least one new plant each year for a continued supply.

These plugs were incredibly easy to grow, one small hole dug, a bit of mulching and a bit of staking - obviously the hard work had been done for me by the suppliers! However, having spaced them according to the enclosed instructions, I realise now that those recommendations are fine for a field or allotment but not when the plants are sharing the space with fruit trees. It all started to get a bit overcrowded by April but that's okay as I'll try and move a couple of them now that they've been cut back, all bar one (keeping the bees happy).

I was fascinated to see that the caulis all grew at different rates, planted north to south in the same soil.  The most southerly plant (in a 7 metre row) grew fastest, largest and produced a head before the others.  Some of the plants produced mostly florets, the largest produced just the one cauli head. I suspect the reason for this is the British weather - a warm winter followed by lots of sun, lots of rain... hardly the typical spring conditions needed by the plant.  The heads and florets came thick and fast once the plant started cropping (as did the grey woolly aphids).  I had plenty to offer friends and neighbours but would have preferred a longer cropping season because the secondary shoots were extremely delicious, whichever way they were cooked.

Victoriana sell the plug plants in sets of 5 which would satisfy a family of 4 (or more) cauli lovers for at least a month - more if the weather permits. (I had nearly two months of pickings.) You do need to watch out for woolly aphids, be prepared to squirt them with an organic spray and give the florets a good wash in water with a splash of white vinegar added to dislodge any bugs.  Strangely, the pigeons didn't seem to bother with the plants beyond the occasional peck at the leaves, perhaps because someone keeps chucking bread crusts for them. In another situation, I would net the plants for protection.

What I have enjoyed most is the sight of veg growing in the middle of winter, the availability of freshly picked stems in early spring and the ability to harvest just one or two stems if I fancy a few steamed cauli florets for a snack lunch. If, like me, you're partial to a bit of cauliflower, this is the plant I'd recommend growing - plant it once and, with an annual mulching of the soil, you're set up for spring veg without further ado.

If you're interested in growing perennial cauliflowers yourself, plugs can be bought from Victoriana Nurseries here.  I planted mine at the end of July, probably a tad late, but still reaped the rewards in the following spring.  The warm extended autumn last year no doubt contributed to the plants' excellent growth up to the cold snap in early 2012 and therefore a good subsequent harvest.

I photographed the plant's development throughout the year - who could resist photographing a monstrously huge plant in December when all else is dying off? I've chosen 12 photos which chart the progress and have squeezed them into 4 rows.  Apologies for the smallness of each frame but you'll get the general idea!

Cauliflower plugs planted 22 July 2011.
Photos from left: 8 inches high 6 weeks after planting; 15 inches high, 9 weeks after planting; right pic taken 2nd December, plant now about 2 ft tall.

Frozen caulis in early Feb 2012; shoots forming in the leaf bracts mid-March; statuesque plant by early April.

First 4" head beginning of April; sprouting shoots end of April; still edible but starting to 'go over' early May.

Cloud of bolted florets by early June, which had turned to flowers by mid-June. 3 week old stump resprouting.

26 comments:

  1. Do the florets taste like cauliflower then, Caro, rather than broccoli?

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    1. Yes, they do Emma! In fact, cover the steamed heads in a cheese sauce and you wouldn't know the difference. I particularly liked the succulent stems steamed, served with a twist of salt and pepper and a dollop of melting butter... but then I also like purple sprouting broccoli because it has tender stems. My teenage son is not a great fan of cauliflower (but loves broccoli) and even he was happy to eat the cauli stems!

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  2. Hi Caro thanks for this post my wife also mentioned perennial cauliflowers to me in a mag. she was reading have marked where you got them and will try them next season.

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    1. You're welcome, David. It's good to pass on information where it helps others. These are big plants though so I hope you have plenty of room - Victoriana sell them in batches of 5 plug plants.

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  3. Nice to have a progress report on the caulis and through the photos to see how they develop. I got the Perennial Veg book for my birthday but have yet to read it - I am way behind with everything at the moment!

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    1. Thanks, Elaine; I thought you'd be interested to know how these had turned out, especially as they can be very large plants! The Perennial Veg book is very good I think, particularly for someone like yourself that is already a confident forager (or so it seems to me). I too have been reading it slowly as I'm dreadfully behind in the garden - I spend most of time getting rid of weeds or putting up fences to keep the fox cubs out!

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  4. They're big plants. I gave up on growing cauliflower as there's only me who really enjoys it, it's an effort to get the rest of the family to eat it.

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    1. Yes, I can quite see that under those circumstances you'd be better off buying a very small cauli now and again just for yourself. My son is not very keen but quite enjoys the florets mixed in with macaroni cheese topped with bacon and more cheese (a tweaked Heston recipe from Butcher, Baker blog). Sometimes with all the effort required to grow our own veg, it's best to grow what will be enjoyed by all.

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  5. Fascinating, have to think about trying these.

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    1. It's great to have lots of winter veg for very little effort - definitely worth giving them a try if you have the space and like caulis! (Although this winter I'm going to also find space for my favourite Romanesco caulis.)

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  6. Thanks for your comment on my blog, Caro! I agree, like the single dahlia - so effective. Interesting post on cauliflower, I haven't grown it yet. The only brassica I've (attempted) to grow(n) is broccoli. And have only successfully harvested a few heads (for a number of reasons, mostly Swedish weather). I've just re-spaced and replanted this year's attempt - a tray of broccoli seedlings from a local nursery, which I'm protecting this year with copper impregnated collars, hopefully deterring cabbage fly and slugs. If I succeed with them this year, I'll have a go at cauli next year :)

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    1. I don't know what typical Swedish weather is like! It surely can't be worse than we're having here in the UK - warm, windy and wet, perfect for bugs and slugs apparently. It will be good to know how you get on with the copper collars. I have a PKS copper trowel that supposed to reduce the numbers of slugs by confusing them; I don't seem to have as many as other gardeners are reporting so maybe it does work!

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  7. Hi, This is really useful, thanks! I just found my way here via the UK Gardeners site. I'm in rural Suffolk now, but used to live near Dartmouth Park - lovely to think there's some veg growing going on. You mentioned the Agroforestry Research Trust - are you interested in 'permaculture.' I love the fact that lots of 'permaculture' methods, like no-digging, perennial veg, polyculture, forest gardens etc, that all seemed a bit batty a few years ago, are becoming mainstream now - even trendy, as you say! I'm having a proper go at polyculture growing this year - or is that so last season?!

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    1. Hi, I've really enjoyed discovering your blog and look forward to reading more. What a coincidence that you used to live near here - you'd be amazed at what's going on: we have a newly formed Transition Town (Dec 2011) which, of course, is very interested in permaculture amongst other things and has already reclaimed a little bit of land for a community garden. I'm interested in all aspects of gardening and food growing; in fact I'm quite envious of your 5 zones of land and, yes, I'd say polyculture is very this year!!

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  8. I too have 9 Star Perennial this year. Got a few plants from a friend. Most people say they're rubbish, not producing much. I like you think they're great and got lots of dinners from them.

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    1. A few plants is all you need, Bridget! I thought they were very tasty and so much nicer than anything supermarket bought. I planted mine is very good soil, mulched with well-rotted horse muck and again with seaweed in the late autumn. I think they must have enjoyed the growing conditions because each plant cropped very well. Glad to know I'm not alone in loving my caulis!

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  9. Mmm might look into this for the plot. I didn't really like caulis until a recent discovery, thanks to the 'Hairy Bikers'. that it is gorgeous drizzled with oil and roasted in the oven. Thanks for this, Caro.

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    1. I have to say that what appeals most about these is the elongated stems of the secondary heads - sort of tenderstem cauliflower! I really prefer Purple Sprouting and Tenderstem to heads of broccoli so these perennial caulis are a real find for me - they've earned their place in my veg garden!

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  10. Hi - Just to let you know that I am passing on the 'One Lovely Blog Award' to you in recognition of your Lovely Blog - I will understand if you don't accept it but if you go to my blog at http://awomanofthesoil.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/one-lovely-blog-award.html then you will see what the conditions of acceptance are.

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    1. Thank you for this Elaine - I'm really chuffed that you thought of my blog when dishing out the award, especially as your blog is so packed with lovely photos and good information! I'm delighted to accept and will try and fulfil the t&c's shortly. Thanks!xx

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  11. Producing for FIVE years? You've definitely got my attention now!

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    1. Yes, amazing isn't it? Stephen at Victoriana thought I might have chopped mine back too hard but they're all resprouting so it looks like another bumper harvest next year (fingers crossed!). Maximum bounty for minimum effort - woo hoo!

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  12. Have read about this here and there and have been tempted but will definitely give this a go Caro after reading your detailed post. May have to wait though as I have just whizzed over to Victoriana Nurseries websites to discover that plugs are not available until 2013 :( Will either have to place an early order or investigate seed sources and whether I would be too late to sow this year.

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    1. Gosh, amazing that they've run out of stock - obviously I was right when I said that perennial veg is all the rage this year!! If you have to wait until 2013 for plugs, you won't get caulis until spring 2014. I haven't read about any seed available on line; I'd better check the last plant standing and see if I can figure out which bit the seed pods are!

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  13. Just found your blog, great stuff.
    this is my second year growing 9 star and really like it as well, the leaves are also edible and espicaly good when young. just need to be careful not to use so many leaves as to stunt the plant.(nice for an early winter veggie here in the northeastern U.S.)
    they can be used in most dishes that call for kale and some that use cabbage.

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  14. Thank you Vinny and welcome. I'm having to start again with my 9star as the rains last year killed off the regrowth. Luckily I'd saved the seed from one plant so I'll try again as it was a wonderful treat to have fresh veggies in the late winter!

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Comments on my posts are much appreciated and help to build an online community of blog friends. Everyone is welcome! I love to discover new blogs so please leave a comment to introduce yourself.
Caro x

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