Cabbages were the vegetables you probably hated as a child. But your parents were right when they told you to eat your greens. These amazing bundles of health fortification contain masses of vitamins C and K. They are low in fat, high in fibre and provide ample helpings of iron, magnesium, calcium and sulphur. Cabbages encourage slimming, improve brain function and promote skin health. If that’s not enough, they can regulate blood pressure, cure hangovers and help reverse diabetes!
It’s no wonder then, that cabbages were the staple food of the lower-classes in Europe before the potato arrived to take their place. Those peasants had to remain healthy while working long days in the fields. Luckily for them it is possible to just about live on cabbages alone. Even today this humble brassica still represents the wholesome cornerstone of an average diet in many parts of Russia.
If you are still not sold on cabbages then you should know that home-grown ones are a world away from the tired slop you were served at school. They are crisp, flavoursome, delicious and pack enough energy to turn the water bright green when you boil them up.
Boiled cabbage is a wonderful way to bring depth and fortification to soups, stews and broths. But finely sliced and eaten raw the vegetable is a perfect complement to salads and burgers. Pickled cabbage is also becoming a common sight on our Sunday roasts.
If you want to grow some and take advantage of the health and taste benefits then you will be pleased to know that they are very easy to rear in the UK. Better still, they grow year round, so you can down those cabbage smoothies to your hearts content!
Read on if you want to learn how to grow king cabbages:
The first thing to do is choose a type of cabbage to grow. There are red and white cabbages. White cabbage is great for soups and stews, while red varieties suit salads and pickling.
We also choose cabbage types by their growing season. There are spring, summer (summer cabbages will also grow during autumn) and winter cabbages.
Spring cabbages are the spring greens you sometimes get in salads. Their heads are usually pointy and not as tightly packed as summer or winter varieties.
You should sow spring cabbages in late summer, plant them out in autumn and harvest in spring.
A good cultivar of spring cabbage is the Durham Early. They are reliable and produce good, solid hearts.
Summer cabbages usually have a ball-like head with tightly packed leaves (although there are some conical verities like Greyhound). They taste great raw on Mediterranean-style beef burgers or with lamb kebabs, they also make fine coleslaw.
You should sow summer cabbages at the start of spring, plant at the end of spring and harvest in late summer/early autumn.
Bourbon is a good summer cabbage, instantly recognizable with its tough leaves and football-shaped heads. Bourbon cores can be quite small but are usually of excellent quality.
Red cabbages are a form of summer cabbages that work best for pickling. They too have a ball head and tightly-packed leaves but are a deep red colour. Red cabbages adhere to the same planting and harvesting timetable as white summer cabbages but can stay on the stalk until early winter.
Winter cabbages also tend to be ball or ‘drum-headed’ like summer ones. However, their leaves aren’t as tightly packed and they are often darker in colour.
Winter cabbages or usually sown in early summer, planted out in late summer and harvested throughout winter and spring. Many varieties are capable of weathering heavy snow.
Tundra is one such cabbage that can withstand even the harshest British winters. It produces dark green heads that will make rich soups to keep you warm until spring.
The aforementioned Tundra is a form of cabbage known as a ‘savoy’. Most savoy cabbages are winter cabbages and they are identified by their strong crinkly leaves. They go very well with meat and can even be roasted for the Sunday dinner table.
Cabbages for Pots
Minicole is one kind of cabbage that can be grown in pots or where space is an issue, so that even if you only have a backyard you can still enjoy a good, fresh cabbage. You sow Minicole in April and can harvest throughout summer and autumn.
Some types of cabbage are ‘hybrids’, which means they have been bred for specific purposes by crossing strains. One interesting hybrid variety is the Hispi, a pointy cabbage with a very good flavour that has been bred so that it can be grown at any time of the year.
Cabbages on stalks!
If you have ever visited the Channel Islands then you may have noticed balls on sticks peering over hedgerows and wondered what they were. These are actually cabbages with super long stalks known as walking stick cabbages. When varnished, the stalks do indeed make quality walking sticks, the export of which once bolstered the Jersey economy.
The Portuguese are another people with a fetish for cabbages on stalks. If you trek across the country’s rice paddy regions you will often encounter balls on sticks towering above the grass and geckos. The Portuguese grow the stalk-cabbages in competition with one another and use them to make a wholesome soup called Caldo Verde. They are so beloved in Portugal that they have become part of the country’s folklore.
So are you tempted to make your neighbours’ jaws drop by growing giant stalk-cabbages too? If so then you will be pleased to know that growing them is not much different from growing normal cabbages. You just need to look for Jersey varieties and remember to stake them when they begin to shoot up.
Cabbages are grown from seed and should be propagated first. Start them off 6 to 8 weeks before you plan to plant them outside. Sow thinly in in compost and water in. Place into a cold frame or propagator, allow plenty of indirect light and keep watered.
When seedlings reach around 10cm (4”), thin out the weaker plants and place outside to harden up. You can plant them into the ground a week later.
Planting (In the Ground)
While you are waiting for your seedlings to get hardy you should prepare your cabbage patch.
Brassicas like a partially shaded spot with good drainage and alkaline soil. Add nitrogen supplements like blood meal to make the soil more appropriate. Some people like to get a tester kit to make sure their soil is good for cabbages. This is not wholly necessary if you are just growing them for yourself and your family but they will indeed fare poorly in acidic earth, so you should dig in some lime. Never put cabbages in spots where you have grown any kind of brassica in the past year because the soil will have been drained of the nutrients they need.
Keep your seedlings well-watered before you transplant them. Carefully set them to ground in rows. Different types require different spacing so look at your seed packet for instructions. Generally 30cm (11”) apart is good for cabbage, with more space leading to bigger plants.
After you place them in the ground you need to ‘puddle’ them in. This means adding water to the hole a few times before adding soil. When you do come to add soil, have about 2.5cm (1”) of their stems buried and press the ground down firmly. Water in, and water every 10 days thereafter until your cabbages begin to grow heads.
Once the plants grow heads you should water more often. A good soaking at least once per week is good, and even more often if you want the heads to swell up. It is also a good idea to keep pressing down the soil around the stem. Add nitrogen-rich additions if you wish, and mulch often to keep the soil moist.
Cabbages are a target for pests and you should attempt to keep them off. There are cabbageworms, aphids, caterpillars and of course disgusting, greedy slugs! Pick these pests off the leaves and dispose of them if ever you see them. If you introduce frogs to your garden they will do much of the hard work and you won’t have to rely on chemical pellets, so get on and build that pond.
Another good way to stop the constant slug onslaught against your brassicas is to build beer traps. The only thing a slug is more partial to than a tasty lettuce leaf is a pint of bitter. Sink old jam jars into the ground every so often along your cabbage rows. Have the jars so their rims are sitting just above soil level. Fill the jars half-full with beer and the next day you will find a lot of slugs have sent themselves off to Valhalla. Good. Keep the traps topped up with fresh beer so your tower defence strategy keeps protecting plants. The rotten slimy brew that is left over also makes a pretty good plant food, yuck!
You can check to see if your cabbage heads are ready for harvesting by squeezing them. If they feel firm then the inside has fully formed.
Remember that fresh cabbage only keeps for around 2 weeks after cutting but will stay fresh on the stalk for much longer. So only take what you will use and leave the rest on the stalk – any cabbages with cracked heads should be taken first.
Using a sharp knife, decapitate the cabbage and retain the head. Compost the remainder including the roots to prevent disease building up in the soil.
Now you can grow boss cabbages you should have no trouble becoming a picture of health, so go ahead and get started!