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 soirée 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.|