Growing Cabbage in the Garden

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Ample moisture is even more important than perfect soil for cabbage, so mulch your plants well to retain water and to keep down weeds.

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.