I once grew one of the nicest heads of cabbage accidently. I had bought a 6 pack of cauliflower starts and one was actually cabbage. I thought one was forming a nice tight ball – really nicely and you can imagine how we laughed when we sliced it open and found it was a beautiful head of cabbage instead! Cabbage also reminds me of the old wartime victory gardens with rows of cabbage and other vegetables in a classic vegetable patch.
A member of the Brassica family it’s therefore a relative of broccoli, cauliflower, mustard and kale, no wonder I confused my maturing cabbage for cauliflower. Cabbage is a versatile vegetable that comes in many forms. B.oleracea capitata group is what we refer to as traditional head cabbage with smooth green and red varieties and crinkly-leaved savoys. Head sizes can range fro mini-cabbages about 1lb to Alaska-grown kraut up to 65 lbs or more! Chinese cabbage comes in two form: B. rapa pekinensis group also know as Pe-tsai is either cylindrical or barrel-shaped in head formation. The other Chinese cabbage, Pak-choi, B. rapa chinensis group is a non-heading type of cabbage with loose leaves clustered around succulent stems. Finally, there are ornamental cabbages B.oleracea acephala group mainly grown for decoration and to add color to the garden.
Head cabbage originated in the Mediterranean region and was known to the ancients of both Greece and Rome, it was hailed for its medicinal purposes by both Cato and Elder. Ancient Egyptians and Romans ate large amounts of cabbage the night before drinking which allowed them to drink more. Celtic wanderers were responsible for its introduction to Europe. In the late 16th and 17th centuries Turks introduced pickled cabbage to Poland and Hungary and it was a stable of German diets by the early 1700’s.
In the East, Chinese cabbage most likely originated in North China some 4,000 years ago. China is the world’s largest producer, but Russia is the number one consumer. Despite centuries long tradition in chinese cuisine, cabbage was not introduced to Japan until the 18th century.
Jacques Cartier is responsible for cabbage coming to America on his third voyage in 1541-1542. Cabbage was considered important for long journey across the ocean since it stored well and contains high amounts of vitamin C to help scurvy. The doctor on Captain Cook’s ship that sailed in 1769 used sauerkraut to treat the wounds of sailors and to prevent gangrene. Today research shows cabbage has significant cardiovascular health benefits as well as anti-inflammatory properties. It also helped to fight off certain types of cancer.
To grow cabbage start spring crops early outdoors from well-hardened transplants. Cabbage like cool weather and will withstand light frosts with some varieties sweetening in flavor. Harvest the spring crops before the hot summer temperature set in. Fall and winter crops should be direct seed in late summer. Fast maturing varieties are good for spring and look for later maturing varieties for fall crops. Just be sure to harvest these late crops before the first hard frost. It’s good to plant 2 or 3 varieties that mature in sequence to ensure prolonged harvests. But be careful not to plant too much!
Cabbage likes organically rich, well-draining soil. Seeds will germinate at 55º-75º and only needs to 1/4″ deep and about 4′-6′ apart and then thinned to 18′-24′. There are early varieties like Golden Acre and Darkri which is well rated for its flavor. Midseason vtypes like hybrid Blue Ribbon, King Cole and Greenback. For a quick growing variety there is Katarina Baby cabbage’s dense round smooth heads are mild and sweet. Purple hybrid Pak Choi is a beautiful and delicious variety which deepens in tones and flavors as the temperatures drop. Late Flat Dutch Storage, a hefty heirloom cabbage is a long-season variety (100-110 days). Its smooth oval rock hard heads of 12″ and 15 lbs. in size. I is the world’s premiere storage cabbage being able to keep for months. It’s perfect for roll-ups, sauerkraut, kimchee, winter slaws, soups and stir fries. Cabbage’s culinary versatility is also one of the things that makes it such a popular choice for the garden.