Growing Cabbage in the Garden

The joys of growing cabbage in the garden, including what variety of cabbage to use, when and how to plant, what to watch for, and how to harvest and store cabbage.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editors
November/December 1986
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Ample moisture is even more important than perfect soil for cabbage, so mulch your plants well to retain water and to keep down weeds.
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Cabbage (Brassica oleracea capitata) is a member of the cole family, as are cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale kohlrabi, and collards. A related plant grows wild along the coasts of western and southern Europe, and it was probably from this "sea cabbage" that our garden varieties originally developed. People have eaten cabbage for more than 4,000 years,and several different types were already being cultivated by the height of the Roman Empire. Cabbage can be grown throughout the continental U.S., but late varieties must be chosen in the South.

Growing Cabbage: What to Plant

Today's gardeners can chose from hundreds of early-, midseason-, and late-maturing varieties when growing cabbage. Among the early cabbages are Copenhagen Market, Golden Acre, Early Dark Green Savoy, Early Jersey Wakefield, Marion Market, Emerald Cross Hybrid, Stonehead Hybrid, and Dwarf Morden. (This last is a miniature Canadian cabbage that is only 4 inches across and matures in 55 days.) Autumn Marvel, Penn, Red Acre and Savoy King are midseason and midseason-late varieties, while late cabbages, like Penn State Ballhead and Wisconsin Hollander, provide an autumn or — in mild climates — even a winter harvest. Because cabbage takes from 60 to more than 180 days to mature, only early types are suited to regions of the country with very short growing seasons.

Of course, there are other ways to classify cabbages. Leaves, for example, can be smooth or crinkled (A crinkled-leafed Savoy contains more iron than other cabbages.) Shades vary from reddish purple (Red Acre, Ruby Ball, and Mammoth Red Rock, for example) to light green, and stems can be almost nonexistent to 20 inches long. Some, such as the Wakefield varieties, have conical heads, while others produce hearts that are round or flat. There are ornamental cabbages, too, having loose, flowering heads with ruffled centers of red, white, or pink and outside borders of green leaves. Gardeners grow them for their beauty alone in containers on patios or even indoors in a sunny location. However, besides being showy autumn plants, they're quite edible and make a colorful addition to salads.

There are other considerations when selecting the type of cabbage to grow. For instance, a Wakefield, as well as most purple cabbages, keeps better than, say, the Savoy types, which are best eaten right from the garden. (And your first taste of garden-fresh cabbage will convince you of the value of growing your own! Store-bought versions are usually harvested weeks, if not months, before they're marketed.) If you want a good winter cabbage that's flavorful cooked or raw, consider the tight-headed white cabbages and such varieties as Celtic Cross F1. Should diseases be a problem in your area, Golden Acre, Marion Market, Stonehead Hybrid, and Early Jersey Wakefield are among the more disease-resistant types. In regions with long hot spells, a heat-resistant cabbage, such as Savoy King, is a good selection.

When to Plant Cabbage

Cabbages are easy to start from seed. Sow early varieties indoors, 1/4 inch deep and 2 inches apart, about four to six weeks (usually mid-January or February in the South and March in the North) before time to set them out in the garden. Place the flats in a greenhouse, on a sunny windowsill, or under fluorescent lights. (Unused seeds should keep for four or five years with germination rates of around 75%.)

Keep the soil uniformly moist and at 60 degrees  to 70 degrees Fahrenheit when growing cabbage. (Large, clear plastic bags slipped over the flats can help maintain moisture and temperature levels, but if the seedlings start to turn pale green or sickly, you can assume that they're too warm.) Once three leaves have formed, the seedlings will be ready to be hardened of in a cold frame or exposed to outdoor conditions (50 degrees to 55 degrees Fahrenheit) for a week or so before they're set in their permanent spot. Just remember: While cabbage seedlings need all the sunshine they can get, daytime temperatures should be on the cool side, and — during hardening off — the tender plants should be brought in at night.

If you're using a cold frame, open it when the temperature inside exceeds 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and close it at sundown. Keep the soil moderately moist, and don't fertilize in the germinating or hardening-off stages; your young cabbages might produce tall, skinny stems and may flower rather than form heads.

Once the plants are well hardened, they can be set out in the garden, even though nighttime temperatures drop below freezing for several days. Stagger your plantings at regular intervals in order to harvest throughout the summer.

With midseason or late types, seeds can be sown in outdoor flats instead of under glass or lights. Otherwise, the growing procedure is the same. Midseason varieties can be sown after the last frost. Late types should be started around the first to the middle of July to be transplanted to the garden by the first or middle of August (no later than August 1 in the North).

How to Plan Your Cabbage Patch

Pick a sunny, well-drained location for your cabbage patch. Early varieties do best in a sandy loam, while later types like a heavier soil that will retain moisture. Since this vegetable is a heavy feeder, plow under 3 inches or more of well-rotted manure or compost at least two weeks before you set out the young plants. Add green sand for potassium, and phosphate rock for phosphorus. Cabbage also dislikes acid soil, preferring a pH between 6.0 and 7.5. Even with ideal pH, raking a heavy dusting of ground limestone into the plowed earth is a good idea, particularly when club root is a potential problem.

Ample moisture is even more important than perfect soil, so mulch your plants well to retain water and to keep down weeds. (To avoid hoe damage to the vegetable's shallow roots, hand-pull any competition that appears.) Overhead watering during periods of high humidity or cool weather can cause diseases if the dense leaves don't get a chance to dry out, and soggy mulch adjacent to the plants may cause the heads to split.

Cabbage can be planted between, or in, rows of early lettuce and radishes, since these crops will be harvested before the cabbage needs the space they occupy. You can follow a cabbage crop with beets, beans, or late corn, while late cabbage can be planted in the same rows from which you've harvested peas or carrots.

Since pinching the stem of a baby cabbage can cause permanent damage, handle the transplants gently. Set them out in 1/2 inch- to 1 inch-deep holes that are wide enough to accommodate a fully spread rootball, then apply enough water to insure contact between the rootlets and the soil. Space the seedlings 6 inches to 12 inches apart in rows 12 inches to 25 inches apart. (The wider the spacing, the larger the cabbages can grow, but younger, smaller ones are tastier. If you use 6 inch spacing, you can harvest every other one before maturity. A 100 foot row of 70 early cabbage plants will yield about 100 pounds; 60 late types in the same space, about 175 pounds.) Firm the soil well around the seedlings, and side-dress them with well-rotted manure three weeks after transplanting. If the leaves start to yellow, your plants probably need a midseason nitrogen boost. Otherwise, cut back on watering and fertilizing as the plants mature, to prevent the heads from splitting.

Garden Pests: What to Watch For

Cabbage, like all members of the cole family, has some traditional enemies, including caterpillars, cutworms, flea beetles, aphids, harlequin bugs, black rot, root knot, yellows, club root, and blackleg. However, these pests and diseases will seldom cause you to lose a healthy, well-weeded crop. Your best lines of defense are to provide good growing conditions, rotate cole crops to different areas of the garden, and use disease-resistant varieties.

Cabbage maggots (white, legless, and 1/3 inch long) are the offspring of cabbage-root flies. They attack the stems, causing the plants to wilt in hot weather. Gently pull the dirt away from such plants, and if you see an infestation, put a heaping tablespoon of wood ashes around each stem, firm up the soil, and water well. Maggots can also be controlled by the prompt removal of the eggs, which look like small grains of white rice. If a plant dies, pull it up and burn it: You certainly want to keep the problem from spreading.

Cabbage butterflies have white or yellow wings marked with three or four black spots and tipped with gray. They lay eggs at the base of cabbage plants, and a week later, caterpillars hatch out to eat big, ragged holes in the foliage, leaving behind bits of green excrement. Inspect the plants and pick off both the eggs and caterpillars, or, later in the season, they will bore into the young cabbage heads. You can discourage the butterflies by surrounding your cabbage bed with tomatoes, garlic, onions, tansy, sage, rosemary, nasturtiums, catnip, or hyssop. Caterpillars can also be killed with a dusting of salt and flour, which causes them to bloat and die. Some gardeners say sour milk spooned into the cabbage heads is sufficient to get rid of worms, while others use a spray of ground mint, onion, garlic, and hot peppers in a little soap and water.

If you're invaded by cabbage loopers (a pale green worm) or harlequin bugs (a southern pest), biological controls include importing a supply of trichogramma wasps, which are parasites, and spraying the crop with Bacillus thuringiensis, a powdered bacterium. Handpicking is slower, but also effective.

Small holes in the leaves are probably caused by flea beetles, which can be discouraged by watering well each evening. Whiteflies and aphids cause unsightly trails of droppings on the leaves, but cabbage can usually survive such pests. If the attack is noticed early, spraying the insects with soapy water should keep them under control.

How to Harvest and Store Homegrown Cabbage

When cabbage heads become firm to the touch, you can start to harvest them. Splitting, if not caused by irregular watering, 1986 means the heads are past their prime. If you want to hold a mature cabbage in the ground a little longer, a slight twist of the head will break some of the feeder roots and keep the plant from bolting or splitting.

To harvest, cut the heads off the root system with a sharp knife. Discard the inferior outer leaves and inspect for insects. If you leave the stalks and roots in place, they'll produce tasty little sprouts that can be eaten like Brussels sprouts or, when left alone, will develop into a second crop of small heads.

Cabbage tastes best when eaten soon after harvesting, but late-season varieties, in particular, will keep well in a moist, cool (32 degrees to 40 degrees Fahrenheit) location for five to six months. Late cabbages can be left in the ground all winter in mild climates, or they can be pulled up by the roots, heeled-in upside down in a well-drained trench, and covered with a foot of leaves or hay. Another storage method is to wrap the individual heads in waxed paper and place them in the coolest part of an attic or basement. You can salvage split heads by quickly turning them into sauerkraut.


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