This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
The celebrated Dr Johnson used to say that of all the flowers in the garden the Cauliflower was the best. Perhaps among the many strong prejudices which had a place in the rugged but powerful mind of the author of 'Rasselas ' there might be one against flowers, or at least in favour of the useful, as compared with the ornamental, in gardens. But setting aside the remark of the distinguished Doctor, there need be little fear of exciting opposing opinions by classing the Cauliflower among the most esteemed of vegetables. Of all the varieties of the Brassica genus it is the most wholesome and delicate; for, unless it be some of the varieties of Broccoli, none of the others can approach it in this respect.
I am not acquainted with any data that fix the exact time of its introduction into this country. It was in cultivation in England in the early part of the seventeenth century, and though then inferior to our present varieties, it was only known as a dainty at the tables of the wealthy. It is said to have been first brought to this country from Cyprus, although there is little or no evidence to show that it is a native of that island. Towards the middle and end of the seventeenth century it was grown sufficiently extensively to allow its being offered regularly for sale in the English markets. Its price, however, ranged very high at the most plentiful season. Up to the time of the French Revolution the Cauliflower was regularly sent from England into Holland and some parts of Germany, and even France. English-grown Cauliflower is still considered superior to that of Continental growth, and the seed of it raised here is more esteemed by Continental gardeners than that of their own growing. This probably arises from the high state of cultivation and care in selection which is bestowed upon it in the neighbourhoods adjacent to London, where the great bulk of the finest seed is saved.
The earliest crop of the season is produced from seed sown the previous autumn. The good old rule, "sow and plant often," in order to keep up a regular supply in good condition, does not apply to any vegetable with greater propriety than to that now under consideration. It is well to start with a recognition of this rule by sowing twice instead of once in autumn. The first sowing should be made about the middle of August, and the second fourteen days later. In those localities where the checking frosts of autumn set in early, these times may perhaps be found late enough, while in other districts I have fuund the last week of August quite early enough. It will depend entirely on the character of the season which of these two sowings may prove the most desirable from which to choose the main stock of plants for wintering in the best condition as to size and hardiness. Some seasons the earlier sowing may be found too large for wintering in frames, and in such cases the propriety of a second sowing becomes apparent.
Choice should be made of an open airy situation on which to sow the seed. The soil should if possible be moderately light, rich, and well pulverised. The seed should be sown thinly, so that the crop of young plants may not become crowded and weakly. If thick, and the season prove wet, mildew is very apt to destroy them. Should the weather and ground be dry, the seed should be steeped in water for twelve hours, and the ground well watered the night before it is sown. This secures a quick and healthy germination without resorting to the undesirable practice of watering the soil after the seed is sown. Many objections might be urged against watering seed-beds in hot dry weather, with the view of promoting germination and healthy growth. The action and reaction caused by such a practice in some cases destroys the seed altogether, and the surface of the soil gets consolidated and caked over. By soaking the seeds and bed before sowing, and then shading it from the hot sun, a healthy germination is promoted with very little trouble.
As has already been remarked, the earliest Cauliflowers of the next season are produced from these autumn sowings; and as soon as they are ready to transplant, a border with a due south and sheltered exposure should be got ready for them. As earliness is the chief object, the soil should not be heavy nor damp. A good dressing of thoroughly-rotted manure should be trenched or dug deeply into it, and every spadeful of the soil should be well pulverised. Hand-glasses should then be placed on the soil thus prepared at about 2 feet apart one way, and 2 1/2 feet the other. The most stocky and healthy plants that can be selected are planted five in each glass, one in each corner, and one in the centre. Although four or five plants is the number to be brought to maturity in these glasses, no harm results from putting a few more into each with the view of transplanting them in spring. This, where framing is scarce, is often practised. Care, however, must be taken that they do not get crowded, or injury to the whole will be the result, and the transplanting of the superfluous stock should be done before rapid growth commences.
When planted and watered, the light should be put over them, but not closely, and a slight shading afforded for a few hours in the middle of the day if the weather be hot. After they take with the ground, it must be kept in mind that the more exposed they are in autumn, while they continue to make growth, the better will be their condition to stand the winter, should it be severe, and come away bold and strong in spring; consequently the tops of the lights should be kept off, except to throw off heavy rains. When the winters are severe, they should be kept closely shut up while the frost continues, and should be screened from sudden bursts of sunshine. If severe frosts take place after the sun gains sufficient power to thaw them quickly, they are more likely to suffer from sudden alternations of temperature than from continued severe frost. Generally this is all the shelter found necessary for moderate-sized plants that have not been crowded, and rendered tender thereby. In mild weather slugs are the principal devourers that must be looked after and destroyed in the usual way. If the surface of the soil is covered with the siftings of burned earth or charcoal, it is good for the plants, and prevents slugs from harbouring so much.