The Artisanal Garden

All About Cabbage

By / Photography By David Cohlmeyer | March 01, 2016
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For a break from all the hoopla over kale, why not consider choosing some of its very close cousins? They all have a similar bitter/sweet flavour and offer nearly the same fine package of nutrients. There are many members of the cabbage family, Brassica oleracea. These all originated in the Celtic region of modern-day Netherlands, Belgium, and England.

The Celts, understanding them to be nutritious, plentiful, and tasty started selecting and cultivating various forms over 3,000 years ago. The word brassica was derived from the Celtic word for cabbage, bresic. Oleracea is Latin for “cultivated garden plants.” Today we know these cousins of kale as collards, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and, of course, cabbage.

Historical Development

The Romans were familiar with a form of cabbage described as something very similar to the beautiful and delicious, modern-day Portuguese Couve Tronchuda, a loose-headed cabbage. During the Middle Ages these loose-headed cabbages (kales) were an important crop throughout Europe. To lengthen storage ability, the Dutch developed a tight-headed cabbage in the fourteenth century. This was much the same as the cabbage heads we know today.

Prior to this, in the thirteenth century, the Belgians developed miniature cabbage buds. These sprouts were particularly popular in Brussels. In the fifteenth century, red versions of cabbage were developed for improved pest resistance. These were later discovered to provide additional nutrients. In the sixteenth century, the faster-growing, crinkly-leaved forms of Savoy cabbage were developed. These are also more mildly flavoured, remain green after light cooking, and are suitable for raw salads. In the seventeenth century, conical shaped Wakefield cabbages were developed for improved spring production. These are also sweeter and more tender.

Chinese cabbage is actually a different species, Brassica rapa, which have been developed and cultivated in Asia for at least 3,000 years. (The strongly flavoured oleracea vegetables never became popular in the Far East.) Rapa indicates that this vegetable is in the turnip family (which also includes the various loose-leaved choy cabbages). A heading form of choy, commonly identified by its Japanese moniker of Napa, is culinarily used in a similar manner to European head cabbages. 



All the cabbages and their kin are excellent sources of vitamin C. This is well retained when cooked with a small amount of water and even after the process of making sauerkraut or kimchi. They also have reasonable amounts of vitamins K and B6. But what these vegetables are currently most regarded for are their soluble fibres, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.

What they are not appreciated for is causing intestinal gas. As with dried beans, this problem goes away after your digestive tract bacteria become sufficiently familiar with these foods. Another objection to cabbage is its sulphurous cooking smells. Quickly heating the cabbage can minimize this, and then avoiding overcooking further minimizes it.

Quality Growing

Since growing cabbages dislike heat above 25º C, they should be grown to mature either before July or after August. At low temperatures they only require some protection from drying winds. Tiny plants will tolerate spring frosts as low as minus-4º C and maturing plants will tolerate fall freezes as low as minus-6º C.

Another important consideration when growing cabbages is that they need very fertile soil. All other crops have synergistic relationships with fungi that efficiently forage the soil for fertility needs. By a strange quirk of nature, brassicas do not form this useful relationship. So the plant’s own roots must have ready access to all the nutrients. Constant soil moisture is important for this process. The soil should never be too wet due to poor drainage or too dry from inadequate rain or irrigation. If your soil is sandy or not exceptionally fertile, plan to add full-spectrum liquid fertilizer or side-dressings of compost every two to three weeks.  

(I guess one can assume that Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood had good soil in the mid 1800s. The area was settled, beginning in the 1840s, by impoverished Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine. Many of them dug up their front yards to grow cabbages, among other vegetables, a practice that was looked down upon by more affluent residents of the newly named City of Toronto, formerly the Town of York. They derogatorily referred to the neighbourhood as Cabbagetown and the name stuck.)

Brassicas are a magnet for many pests. Reduce their presence by rotating the location where brassicas are grown, keeping the garden free of dead plants and weeds, and mowing weeds around the garden. Without steady moisture and fertility, stressed plants become even more susceptible to pest damage. The most common home-garden pests:

  • Cut Worms live in the soil, especially in newly dug gardens. They encircle young plants and then strangle them as they suck out juices. You can prevent this by inserting a nail beside each stem or by wrapping a piece of paper around each stem above and below the soil level.
  • Cabbage Maggots are small white larvae that tunnel into the roots of cabbage plants, which weakens or kills afflicted plants. They come from the eggs of an insect that looks like a housefly. You can keep the fly away with a row cover. Or you can keep larvae away from the roots with a soil cover around each plant.
  • Flea Beetles are black pinhead-sized insects that jump away as soon as they sense your footsteps, so you might not see them. They chew many tiny holes in the leaves. A serious outbreak can kill small plants, but they generally just cause cosmetic damage. You can keep them away with a row cover that is sealed into the soil.
  • Cabbage Worms are pale green larvae of various white butterflies. They chew large holes in the maturing leaves. You can prevent them by covering with a row cover. Or you can spray the caterpillars with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a natural bacterium used in organic agriculture that kills the caterpillars that are eating the affected leaves but is not harmful to beneficial insects.

Growing Cabbage

Due to their sensitivity to summer heat, it is best to plan on harvesting cabbage crops only in early summer and late fall. Due to their slow growth, sensitivity to extreme temperatures, susceptibility to a wide assortment of pests, and their intolerance of being pot-bound in retail nurseries, it is best to start them all as home bedding plants.

Next year, start early crops in a bright window or greenhouse in early March. I like to start seeds in a soil mix of 65 percent peat moss, 20 percent compost, and 15 percent topsoil. To avoid uneven watering issues, I prefer to simply fill standard 10 x 20 trays with this soil mix, then dibble in seeds 1/4-inch deep in a grid about 1 1/2 inches apart in every direction. After the plants have formed their second set of true leaves, pull out the smaller plants (and transplant some) to form a healthy grid of plants about 3 inches in each direction. Move to a cool, sunny location. Continue growing until about 4 inches high.

With a sharp knife, cut 3-inch soil blocks around each plant. (This actually invigorates the plants.) Transplant into the garden with plants 2 1/2 feet apart as soon as the soil has dried in late April or early May. It is helpful to water well and cover the plants with a row cover.

This year, start late crops with this same soil mix and seeding pattern in early July. Place them outdoors where they will have midday shade. Always keep the soil moist. In mid-August, transplant into the garden with plants 2 1/2 feet apart.

Since cabbage varieties interbreed so easily, there are very few true heirlooms still in existence. But contemporary varieties are essentially similar to the heirlooms, so read your favourite seed catalogues to determine which varieties strike your fancy.

To maintain quick growth, cultivate out weeds growing near your plants, taking care not to cause damage to their shallow roots. When cabbage heads feel firm (no longer spongey), harvest them before they begin to split. I like to cut them above ground level to leave several of the wrapping leaves. Trim off most of the leaves while leaving the axils (between the leaf and stem) untouched. Often new baby cabbages will start forming around the stump.

Uses for Cabbage

Since Russian, Polish, and other Eastern European cuisines continue to make the most frequent use of cabbages, they are the best sources for recipe suggestions. Cabbages can be the lead ingredient in soups, stews, casseroles, curries, stir fries, coleslaws, and salads. Use as a wrapping for cabbage rolls or as a filling for pierogies, buns, dumplings, eggrolls, or samosas. And cabbage is the primary ingredient used to make fermented, probiotic-rich sauerkraut and kimchi, which in turn can be a main ingredient or a healthful flavouring.

The trick to cooking any cabbage is to heat it quickly with either hot oil or a boiling liquid. This breaks down the offending enzyme before it starts releasing sulphurous odours. Then do not let the cabbage remain simmering or hot for an extended period. Heat gradually releases unpleasant odours. It is preferable to chill and then reheat.

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