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.

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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.

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