By Bobbie Whitehead
Cabbage has historically served as a favorite garden plant, first having grown in Old World gardens centuries ago.
A favorite vegetable for soups, condiments and side dishes, gardeners can turn cabbage into a year-long crop, depending on their climate as well as the manner in which they grow the vegetable.
For a fresh cabbage supply in the winter, greenhouses or row covers in the garden during freezing or a snowy season can protect the plants.
No matter what type of method used, some cabbage varieties can handle frosty weather.
Cabbage made its way into human diets via the Mediterranean region, having descended from a wild kale growing there. In the 9th century, Slavs grew cabbage, according to Cathy Wilkinson Barash in the National Garden Bureau article “2007: The Year of Cabbage and Kale.”
Interestingly, Russian princes often created gardens devoted to growing “kapusta,” as cabbage was called, to show respect, Barash writes.
However, the author notes that Central and Western European Celts turned the vegetable into a popular food in the 13th century.
Several hundred years later in the mid-1500s, Voyager Jacque Cartier began planting cabbage in Canada, and eventually, in the 1700s, the vegetable had become common in U.S. colonist and American Indian gardens, according to Barash.
But in Asia, Chinese cabbage had grown even longer with the first mention of it in 5th century Chinese literature – several centuries later, the Japanese began growing Chinese cabbage, which made its way to the United States via immigrants not long afterwards, she writes.
Some experts say cabbage can handle temperatures as low as 15 degrees. Even if the cabbages freeze in the winter months, some of the plants may continue growing as the temperatures warm up.
This freezing, some experts say, increases the sweetness or eliminates any bitter taste in cabbages as it does in certain greens.
Gardeners wanting to grow the vegetable in winter should choose a variety that handles low temps. Some late season varieties include the Huron and the O.S. Cross. But many different types exist, so check with a local extension office to find the appropriate variety for the area.
To plant, gardeners can start the cabbage indoors from seed in starter pots, transplanting several weeks before the first frost or just plant the seeds in the ground in areas with a mild climate. Cabbage can also be started in “beds or flats,” write Diane Relf and Alan McDaniel, Virginia Cooperative Extension horticulture extension specialists, in their article “Cole Crops or Brassiccas.” A number of new compact varieties enable growing cabbage in containers.
Cabbage plants need a location providing plenty of sunshine with soil that drains well. When sown directly in the garden, space seeds about 12 to 18 inches apart, keeping the rows about 30 to 36 inches apart to allow the heads to expand, Relf and McDaniel write.
In containers, the cabbage needs depth for its roots and space to expand. Thin the cabbage plants once they emerge.
Since cabbage is a “medium-feeder,” meaning it takes up a modest amount of nutrients from the soil, Relf and McDaniel suggest using a starter fertilizer and sidedressing three weeks later with about “three tablespoons of 30-0-0 for each 10-foot row.”
Other experts suggest planting cabbage in soil with high levels of organic material to maintain nutrients for the plants. The plants also need plenty of moisture.
When the temperatures drop to freezing or near freezing, gardeners can protect the plants with row covers, plant blankets or plastic tunnel covers with arched wires that expand like an accordion. Check the plants during the day, though, in case they become too warm.
Cabbage harvests typically begin between 70-100 days after sown, depending on the variety, and gardeners can determine the vegetable’s readiness when it has developed a firm head. Before the head forms, the center leaves form the shape of a head that doesn’t feel compact when touched. To harvest, simply cut the stem just beneath the head.