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Barbara Pleasant: Growing Garden Cabbage

 
cabbage seedlings
Growing cabbage from seed is easy, and gives me something to do in February, when I can't wait to start gardening. I set out hardened-off seedlings in April, when the rhododendrons bloom.
'Alcosa' savoy cabbage
'Alcosa' savoy cabbage

The more I grow them, the more I like cabbage varieties that produce small heads. It's great to not have chunks of cut cabbage getting lost in the fridge. A single small head is just the right amount of cabbage for two enthusiastic cabbage eaters.

 

In addition to variety, cabbage size is affected by spacing. Growing any variety closer than 18 inches apart will give you smaller heads.

homemade sauerkraut
One of the most interesting ways to extend the storage life of cabbage is to ferment it into kraut. I'm most successful in early summer, when it's nice and cool indoors. Like making compost, making sauerkraut gives diminishing returns: a big garden cabbage will eventually ferment into about 1.5 pints of sauerkraut. 
Even fertile soil should be amended with nitrogen to grow great garden cabbage. Before setting out seedlings, I enrich planting holes with a balanced organic fertilizer mixed with a generous amount of homemade compost. When the plants start heading, they get a drench with a liquid fertilizer plus a waft of boron. In my soil, a tease of borax diluted in the watering can once, at midseason, has an invigorating effect on the plants.
We grow cabbage twice a year, in spring and in fall. Cabbage doesn’t survive winter here and summers can get hot, so fast-growing varieties work best in both seasons. The spring crop is especially important because we harvest little secondary heads several weeks after the main one is harvested -- cut and come-again cabbage! Read more below.
 

The more I get to know cabbage varieties, the more I find that each cabbage variety likes to be handled a little differently. This is great because it takes me three to four seasons to use up a packet of seeds, allowing plenty of time to learn a variety’s special talents and quirks.

Most of our garden cabbage gets eaten fresh (I'm a fool for slaw), but I do ferment small batches of sauerkraut. Another preservation idea: blanch the beautiful outer leaves of your garden cabbage, and freeze them flat. When quickly thawed, they are great for making stuffed cabbage rolls.                                                                                

Cut and Come Again Cabbage

 

One of the neat things about spring cabbage is this: cut the first heads high on the stem, and a cluster of nice-sized secondary heads will grow from the stump, somewhat like giant, loosely curled brussels sprouts. You can grow cut and come again cabbage in the fall, too, though new growth slows to a crawl as fall turns to winter.

 

The cut and come again cabbage technique works best in early summer, practiced on plants that still have some spring vigor left in them. In hotter weather, the cabbage will cut and come again, but the secondary heads may be below ground, as pale nubby heads encrusted with soil. Interesting but inedible without a lot of washing.

 

This is a unique aspect of growing garden cabbage that should be more widely practiced. When things go well, you can double per plant productivity by growing cabbage cut-and-come-again style.


Common Cabbage Pests
imported cabbageworm, common cabbage pest
The most common cabbage pests are imported cabbageworms (above), which are the larvae of the cabbage white butterfly (above right). When you see these white butterflies active in your garden, you can be sure they are laying eggs on the leaf undersides of broccoli, cabbage, and kale.
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In spring, plastic cloches protect cabbage seedlings from damaging winds, hungry rabbits, and lazy chickens. You can use milk carton cloches the same way.
 In spring I use row covers to control cabbageworms preventively. With the fall crop, I use sprays of organic pesticides based on bacillus thuringiensis strains to keep cabbageworms and armyworms under control.   
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Earwigs often seek shelter in the base of cabbage plants, so they are common cabbage pests in home gardens. Earwigs are easy to trap using damp rolls of newspaper placed between plants. In the cool of the morning, tap them out into a pail of soapy water. You can also trap earwigs with shallow dishes of vegetable oil. 
Mulching Garden Cabbage
Cabbage plants require wide spacing, and the best way to keep the area between the plants weed free is to cover it with a good mulch. Here I am using grass clippings over newspapers as a cabbage mulch, and straw or chopped leaves work well, too. Do be careful in years with wet springs, which favor leaf-eating slugs -- a formidable cabbage pest. In sluggy seasons, I may not mulch my cabbage at all, because no mulch means less shelter for slugs. As cabbage plants approach full size, their huge basal leaves shade the soil, creating a green mulch.
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