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Cool Nights: Time for Broccoli, Cauliflower : Save growing time by using transplants but prepare soil well for a bountiful yield.

<i> Sidnam has written garden columns and features for the Times since 1975. </i>

Fall is the prime time to grow broccoli and cauliflower in Southland gardens. Both love the bright days and cool nights of our autumn growing season. Gardeners new to our area often try to grow these vegetables in the spring--the traditional growing time in most of the rest of the country.

This is a mistake in all but the coastal areas of Southern California, as spring-grown broccoli and cauliflower often do not have time to form proper heads before bolting to seed.

Beginning this month, transplants for broccoli and cauliflower start showing up at local nurseries. You can save six to eight weeks of growing time by utilizing transplants. However, you have a wider selection of varieties by starting your own plants from seed. I suggest you do both: Plant some transplants this month, and also plant some seeds in pots for later transplanting into the garden.

Broccoli is a stately vegetable and its culinary uses are many and varied. Although broccoli was prized in Roman gardens over 2,000 years ago, its introduction to the United States occurred only 60 years ago when Italian settlers began its cultivation in the Santa Clara Valley. Its popularity increased rapidly and it is now a favored vegetable throughout the land.

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Broccoli is an ideal crop for the home gardener. It is quite easy to grow, loaded with vitamins and minerals and produces terrific yields.

Two old favorite broccoli varieties are heavy producers of side shoots, in addition to bearing large central heads. They are De Cicco and Calabrease, and although they are later to mature than hybrid varieties, their heavy production makes them a fine addition to your garden.

Tender Central Heads

Among hybrid varieties, Premium Crop produces tender central heads up to 10 inches across. Bonanza Hybrid and Green Goliath are recent introductions that are heavy producers. Early Emerald Hybrid is the earliest-maturing broccoli ever developed.

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Cauliflower is an elegant member of the cabbage family. By growing your own, you can be assured of truly fresh, pristine white heads and also sample some of the varieties not available in the market.

While snow-white heads are most prized by cooks in this country, in Italy many cooks favor a purple-headed cauliflower.

As far as I’m concerned, probably the best white cauliflower is a variety called Early Snowball A. It is a reliable producer of 3- to 4-pound heads of excellent quality. Seeds for Early Snowball A are usually available in seed racks and it is frequently the variety sold as bedding plants in nurseries and garden centers.

Other good white cauliflower varieties include Snow Crown Hybrid which is a recent All-American Winner, Snow King Hybrid, which is an extremely early maturing variety and Early Snowball Y, a very vigorous producer of compact white heads.

Purple-headed cauliflower is quite simple to grow and has several advantages over its white-headed cousins. It has a higher vitamin content, does not require blanching for whiteness and it holds its quality much longer when it reaches the harvest stage. The one disadvantage of purple cauliflower is that it takes longer to reach maturity than the white-headed types.

The best home garden purple cauliflower is a variety called Purple Head. It produces heads of a beautiful purple hue when it is growing but when cooked, they turn a bright green. The flavor of Purple Head could be described as resembling the taste of traditional cauliflower blended with a mild broccoli flavor. Purple Head freezes better than white cauliflower.

Purple Head is not available as transplants in nurseries and will have to be planted from seeds.

Prepare the Soil

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The culture is similar for broccoli and cauliflower. Plant broccoli and cauliflower transplants in an area that receives full sun. Prepare the soil by spading to a depth of 12 inches and work in a generous amount of compost or other organic materials. Both vegetables are heavy feeders. When preparing the soil, mix in 5 pounds of a 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet of soil area and then water thoroughly. Transplants should be spaced 12 inches apart, in rows 2 feet apart.

Broccoli and cauliflower are susceptible to transplant shock. Set out plants in the early evening when it is cooler and check them the next day. If they look droopy, you may need to shade them for a few days. Transplants should be watered during the transplanting process and then sprinkled for the next five days until they become established. After that, keep the plants watered on a regular basis and never allow the soil around them to dry out completely.

Many become discouraged when growing broccoli, cauliflower or other cabbage family members because of cabbage worms. Don’t let them discourage you; control them with products such as Dipel, Thuricide or Attack, which contain the biological insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis , which is harmless to warm-blooded creatures and beneficial insects.

It is crucial that broccoli be harvested at the correct stage. The head should be cut while the buds are still small and the head is compact. Make sure you cut the heads before the buds start opening and the small yellow flowers appear. When cutting the heads, leave 3 or 4 inches of stem on them.

If you are going to grow white-headed cauliflower, it is necessary to blanch the heads to keep them snow white. Blanching is accomplished by tying the outer leaves over the heads to prevent them from being exposed to the sun. It should take place when the immature heads reach a diameter of 2 to 3 inches. Purple cauliflower does not require blanching.

Cauliflower should be harvested when the heads are smooth, solid and tight. As the heads enlarge, you should check under the blanching leaves often so that you can cut them at the proper time.

When broccoli and cauliflower plants start to reach maturity, they tend to become a little top-heavy and it may pay you to tie them to stakes to prevent Santa Ana winds from uprooting them.

Seeds for most broccoli and cauliflower varieties mentioned here should be available at local nurseries. Seeds for Purple Head cauliflower may be difficult to locate. They are available from Burpee Seeds, 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18991.

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