VERSATILE AND HEALTHFUL CABBAGE – GARDENING TIPS FROM THE CULINARY VIEW
as recommended by Michael Vidrine
Despite being the middle of Winter, February remains a productive month in the garden. Unless we’ve had unusually cold weather, leafy greens, root crops and even sweet peas are usually still chugging along. Cole crops will also be available in abundance including cabbages.
Cabbage (Brasica oleracea – various varieties) has been in cultivation in Europe since around 1000 BC. It is descended from the wild cabbage in that region which has also brought us lots of other cole crops including broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. Cabbage is a biennial (usually taking 2 years to set seed) which we grow as an annual. The word cabbage is an English pronunciation of the old French word caboche – meaning head. Strangely, the French word for cabbage is choux not caboche. Indeed a French term of endearment is “mon petite choux” which literally translates as “my little cabbage”. However it is important to note that the French also call a puff pastry a choux. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether they are referring to their sweetheart as a cabbage or a sweet pastry.
Cabbages come in a number of shapes from pointed to round to flattened. Cabbage varieties range in size from a half a pound to over 8 pounds. They also come in a number of colors including almost white, dark green, almost blue and purplish red. Around the 16th century, a new type with crinkly leaves was developed. These are known as Savoy cabbages named after the Italian province where they first arose.
Cabbages are cool weather crops with optimum temperature highs of 60 to 70 and lows of 40 to 50. Our winter averages are right in that range and cabbages ( and most other cole crops) do best as a fall planted vegetable grown right through the winter. Cabbages tough out most moderate freezes without the need for any protection however if temperatures are going to drop quickly below the mid 20’s some protection may be desirable.
Cabbages grow best in full sun with well drained, fertile soil with a pH of 6 to 7. In our heavy clay soils, a raised bed is advisable. Warm temperatures encourage a number of different pests (grasshoppers, aphids, cabbage loopers) to chew on our cabbage plants and some control may be needed. Once really cool temperatures arrive, the pest problems reduce significantly . Cabbages can also have a few problems with various fungal and bacterial diseases. Rotating cabbage family plants to different locations in the garden year to year helps to reduce these problems. I do sometimes treat for fungal issues especially if the weather has been warm and rainy.
Cabbages can be direct seeded and also transplant easily. Using transplants can often advance the season by 2 weeks or more. Depending on variety, plants are usually spaced 1 to 2 feet apart. Cabbage roots are fairly shallow so even watering is important and deep cultivation should be avoided. Both the Brazos Master Gardener website and the Aggie Horticulture website list many varieties recommended for our area. One of our favorite varieties is the heirloom Early Jersey Wakefield. It makes a fairly small teardrop shaped cabbage that is perfect for a meal for my wife and I. For making a batch of slaw or for making sauerkraut, we like a big variety like Late Flat Dutch.
Harvest a cabbage once the head has become firm and has reached the size you want. Rather than pulling up a mature cabbage which may disturb adjacent plants, cut the stalk close to the ground or twist the cabbage until the stalk breaks. Remove all the loose outer leaves and trim the stalk close to the head – we usually do this right at the compost pile and drop the unused portions right into the pile. Cabbages can store for 2 weeks or more in a plastic bag kept in the crisper area of the refrigerator. It is best to plan to harvest all of your cabbage before warm temperatures arrive in the Spring because many cabbages will bolt (go to flower) with the advent of spring. It is pretty dramatic to see a cabbage split open and shoot up a flower stalk – if you haven’t seen this before, maybe let one go.
Cabbages are high in vitamins K and C as well as a good source of fiber. They can be steamed, sautéed, braised, roasted, fried, stewed and eaten raw. They can also be pickled, fermented and juiced. We always grow enough cabbage to share with friends and still have some to make a nice batch of sauerkraut which I like far better than store bought. Cabbages really shine in a hearty winter soup like a French Pot-au-feu or a Mexican Caldo-de-res or a Russian Borsht . Cabbage rolls are also one of my top comfort foods.
If you haven’t grown cabbages before, plant a few and see how great fresh from the garden can be.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor