Get A Head

Cabbage is one vegetable that has been bypassed by the designer vegetable trend. You won't find it featured in fancy restaurants. Local nurseries don't pay much attention to it. And for many gardeners cabbage is a no-brainer. You plant one dependable variety and a couple of months later...it's slaw time!

There is no more regal a vegetable than a well-grown cabbage, three feet across, its giant silvery green or dusty purple leaves shining with health. Cabbages can take some heat, but they love the cold, which means that we can have a cabbage or two gracing the garden in spring and fall as well as summer.

The reason a lot of people start taking cabbage for granted is that it often turns out to be too much of a good thing. Buy a sixpack at the garden center, put the seedlings in and about two months later six plump heads of cabbage will be staring at you. And I don't know any family--even one that loves cabbage--who needs even three cabbages at once, especially when there are so many other vegetables ready for eating. With a little planning before you plant, you can arrange your harvest according to your needs.

Start from Seed

First, free yourself from the sixpack syndrome and grow your own transplants. Aside from giving you a much wider range of varieties from which to choose, starting cabbage from seed is easy. No vegetable seed sprouts so readily in containers or in the ground. Cabbage germinates over a wide range of soil temperatures--at 50° to 90° F the seed is up in four days. And the seedlings are strong enough to push gamely through rougher soils than carrots or lettuce can. The stocky little plants quickly reach a size that's easy to handle.

All of which makes it convenient to have just two or three plants going at a time. Even though you may really only need one plant ready to pick at a time, starting with several increases the odds against the pests that can make short work of a young cabbage plant. That's why it's also better to start your seedlings in containers where you can protect them, rather than starting them in the garden. Every two to four weeks start two or three more plants, up until about six weeks before the last hard frost date. If a space should open up unexpectedly, you can fill the gap promptly with a cabbage.

Leftover seed won't go to waste. Cabbage seed lasts a long time with no special care. If you put it in a box on top of a file cabinet or in a kitchen drawer it will keep with good germination rates for about five years. Extra seed kept in sealed containers in a cool place will last up to nine years with little decline in vigor. You can buy one packet of a new cabbage every season, and in a few years, you'll have a complete cabbage sampler in your garden, with a selection of varieties for both spring and fall planting.

Four Kinds of Cabbage

There is a lot of variation within the cabbage clan and their very close relatives--brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and kale. Since all the cole crops can be crossed fairly easily, nearly anything is possible. Some of the kinds that gardeners can grow are rarely seen in commercial markets anymore. The simplest way to talk about the many types of cabbage is to group them according to the shape of the heads.

Pointed Head cabbage

Pointed Heads

This group (also called oxheart cabbage) used to be very popular. Today there are only a few cabbages from this group still readily available such as 'Arrowhead' and 'Early Jersey Wakefield'. 'Early Jersey Wakefield' has been popular for more than a hundred years. In its heyday it was notable for earliness, but nowadays, quite a few modern round cabbages can match its 60-plus days to maturity. What makes 'Jersey Wakefield' still worth planting are its tender, succulent leaves that make excellent, juicy summer coleslaw. Its rapid growth also means it's a good choice for a quick fall crop, though the heads don't store well. In the South, it's one of the best cabbages for planting in winter for a spring crop, resisting bolting better than many varieties.

Round Headed cabbage

Round Heads

Just as our national tastes have come to mean that virtually all tomatoes are red and round (though they could just as easily be golden and shaped like pears), market cabbages are all nearly round and nearly white. Most of them have been bred for resistance to one or more cabbage diseases. Ninety percent of seed catalogs' cabbage offerings will be in this group. Here are key traits to look for. Early round-head cabbages, like 'Dynamo' or 'Stonehead', ripen in 60 to 75 days. They tend to be soft and juicy, which makes them excellent for eating fresh, but they won't keep long.

Midseason and late round-head cabbages, sometimes called processing cabbages, these are drier and intended for slaw or sauerkraut. Midseason varieties, such as 'Blue Vantage' and 'Rio Verde', ripen in 75 to 90 days. The best keepers will be hard, dry and very white inside. They are the latest to ripen, taking three months or more to mature. 'Atria' will keep for three to four months, while varieties such as 'Missouri' and 'Storage No. 4' will keep up to eight months in cold storage.

For boiled cabbage, many people prefer a little more color; for that, savoy or red cabbage varieties are the best choices in a late cabbage. 'Savoy Ace' and 'Savoy Express' are two crinkly-leaved varieties with the pale yellow interior that makes the savoys so good for boiled cabbage. Red cabbages, like 'Red Acre' and 'Ruby Perfection', are prized for giving color to salads, though they also make good boiled cabbage.

Flat Headed cabbage

Flat Heads

This hamburger bun-shaped type produces tremendous yields of huge heads that store well. While flat heads are quickly disappearing from the American scene, they are the cabbage of choice in China, where people serve wedges cut the way that we slice pie.

The classic flat head is 'Late Flat Dutch'. It produces a head 10 inches across that will keep in cold storage for at least two months. It's best planted to mature in fall or early winter.

Loose Headed cabbage

Loose Heads

In England these are called "spring cabbages" and are shipped up from the milder southwestern counties in March and April. In America we call them collards and consider them a southern crop. Some varieties available to gardeners include 'Vates', 'Georgia', and 'Champion'. The cabbage collection at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva contains several dozen kinds.

The frugal way to eat collards is as greens--harvesting lower leaves, cutting or pulling out the tough midribs and chopping the greens. A better way is to treat them more like cabbage. Grow them to form a large, loose head in fall or early winter. Harvest only the tender, pale green and buttery yellow inner leaves of the head and serve them as you would cabbage: steamed, stir-fried or in stews. Leave the big green leaves in the garden.

What Cabbage Likes

Remember that cabbage prefers a temperate climate, preferably on the cool side, and plant accordingly. If the temperature never left the 60s and 70s, cabbages would grow to perfection. They can take freezes down to about 22° F without damage. But when the weather is hot, cabbage flavor declines and the heads can split quickly if the soil is wet.

Ideally, you want your cabbage crop to mature before daily temperatures move into the 90°Fs. In the North, it's a summer and fall crop. In the middle latitudes you can get a quick crop in spring, but the fall harvest will be better. In the South, cabbage can be planted in late summer and again in mid- to late winter.

Cabbages behave like biennials: Exposed to cold below 40°F, they start to go to seed. For winter transplants in the South, the rule of thumb is that stems should be no thicker than a pencil or temperatures below 40° F can force the plants to bolt to seed. When figuring days to maturity, remember that days when the temperature barely reaches 50° F don't count for much. The cabbage will sit there in fine condition, but little growing takes place. During cool weather the flavor improves measurably as sugars build up in the plant.

To get big cabbages, grow them fast. You need the plants to develop leaves quickly to power subsequent growth, so keep the soil evenly moist and fertile from planting day onwards. Among vegetables, cabbage is one of the heaviest feeders. Apply three pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer or a seed meal per 100 square feet. The earth should be high in organic matter and be worked loosely and deeply. Cabbages do well in double-dug or well-tilled ground.

For big heads, set the plants about 20 inches apart. If smaller heads suit your needs or the capacity of your refrigerator better, set them 12 inches apart. Cabbage plants have many shallow roots, so don't hoe too closely to the plants. It's best to have an organic mulch around them by the time they are half-grown. As harvest approaches, the heads become very tight and firm when you squeeze them. If for some reason you can't harvest and store them in a refrigerator, you can slow their tendency to split by pushing a shovel blade into the ground next to the stem, severing roughly half the plant's roots so they take up less water.

For fall and winter crops it's best to start seeds in containers, even though they will germinate well in open ground. It's the easiest way to avoid insect damage, since the plants are most vulnerable when they are young. It also helps you to mitigate high heat. Set transplants into the garden when they reach the 6- to 8-leaf stage.

Cabbage Damage Control

Cabbages aren't bothered by many insects and are able to grow fast enough to recover quickly from damage. But there are four pests that can, at times, gain the upper hand.

Cabbage Maggot. This small fly is attracted to newly worked soil and lays eggs at the base of a cabbage stem or on the soil nearby. The root maggots that emerge feed on the roots for one to several weeks. The adults can lay eggs throughout the growing season. When there are more than 50 feasting on a single root mass, you'll begin to see wilting on bright days. Sometimes the plants keel over and die very quickly. Once maggots are working on the roots, there's little you can do. But it's fairly easy to prevent the insect from gaining entry. Cut 6- by 6-inch squares of tar paper and punch a hole in the center with a nail. Then make a slit from the hole to one edge and slip this shield around the seedlings at planting time, making sure it fits snugly around the stem. The adult fly will be unable to get near the stem and won't lay eggs there.

Cabbageworm. Several small pale butterflies lay tiny white eggs on the undersides of cabbage leaves, from which hatch voracious cabbage-colored caterpillars. The imported cabbageworm is widespread and around all season long. The cabbage looper and the diamondback moth, which produce small, green caterpillars that do similar damage, don't winter over in the North. They migrate from the South each year, reaching the northern tier states by late August or September. Loopers hunch up in a loop if you touch them; the others don'tAll these insects are fairly easily controlled with Bt sprays. Apply the bacterial insecticide before the worms reach 1/4 inch in length.

Aphids. In hot, dry springs and in the cooler weather of fall, aphid populations can get out of control. Aphids tend to cluster on the most nutritious areas of the plant--growing tips and leaf axils--where they are harder to reach with sprays.

Insecticidal soaps are very effective against aphids. Start spraying as soon as you see the first little pale green wedge-shaped pests.

Flea Beetles. Cabbage flea beetles, striped and about 1/8 inch long, can do serious damage to young cabbage plants. They are season-long pests in most areas, with no distinct gaps between generations. But they thrive in hot weather. The best controls we have for them are insecticides such as diatomaceous Earth and pyrethrum.

Jack Ruttle is a former senior editor at National Gardening.

Photography by National Gardening Association, Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association (aphids and cabbageworm), Kansas Department of Agriculture-Plant Protection & Weed Control Program (rootmaggots), and USDA (flea beetle)

Article published on June 23, 2008.

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