Cabbage is one of the most unique, beautiful, and versatile of our vegetable crops.
The cabbage head is comprised of a series of modified leaves tightly wrapped around a central bud and surrounded by stiff outer leaves in beautiful hues of blue, grey, and green with various degrees of bloom and prominent venation. It is a spectacular ornamental plant.
Cabbage’s culinary history spans millennia of European cuisine and geography from England and Ireland to Ukraine and south to Italy and even Turkey. Cabbage was originally cultivated by the Romans, and it was one of their favorite vegetables.
As a food substance, it has been sometimes maligned as simple fare for economically disadvantaged groups. Because of its ease of production, good yields, and keeping abilities, it was readily adopted by all sorts of people. Cabbage and potatoes became associated with the 18th-century Irish, providing the basis of simple and nutritious meals in dishes such as colcannon (mashed potatoes and cabbage) and with the addition of pork as in the traditional bacon and cabbage dish. Alas corn beef and cabbage is an American dish and owes its inception to Irish immigrants in the United Sates. Various forms of cabbage salad are traditional in Europe and elsewhere, familiar to us as coleslaw. Today the cabbage salad repertoire has greatly expanded with dozens of variants by inventive chefs.
I grew up eating stuffed cabbage, called “holishkes” by Eastern European Jews and “galumpkis” by Polish people, and freshly made coleslaw from the nearby German delicatessen. My love of cabbage really bloomed when I began growing this plant and turning heads into homemade sauerkraut. The ingredients were salt and age, nothing else.
Cabbage is a member of the Cruciferae or mustard family and is close kin with half a dozen other nutrient-rich anticancer plants like broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts, all belonging to the same wild species Brassica oleracea, which originated along limestone cliffs around the Mediterranean. Cabbage is B. oleracea capitata from the Latin capitatus, literally “having a head.”
Cabbage is relatively easy to grow. While potentially susceptible to a number of diseases, in a small garden setting with proper rotation, it will perform well. One of the most common and damaging pests is the cabbage white butterfly, easily controlled by the use of the biological, Bacillus thuringiensis, sold as DiPel, available as a spray or powder. Flea beetles are sometimes a problem with young seedlings, and they may need protection, but strong cabbage plants will usually outgrow these pests.
A neutral to slightly alkaline soil is ideal for cabbage, although it will do fine in slightly acidic soils with a pH of 6.0 or higher. Humus-rich soils are ideal, preferably not too sandy and reasonably well-draining. Sandy soils can produce good crops, but planting should be done early for quick growth before summer heat and drought. Generous additions of compost or well-rotted manure will create a nutrient-rich soil that maintains an even moisture level. Regular weekly waterings are essential to good cabbage growth. Additions of organic fertilizer when planting or a side dressing can boost growth rate and weight.
Like many greens, cabbage does best in a relatively cool northerly climate, or planted so it will have most of its growth in cooler temperatures. While cabbage is frost-hardy, it will not tolerate deep freezes, and heads will damage and split. Light frosts are fine and will improve flavor.
Cabbage may be started from seed indoors, in a cold frame, or direct sown. For fall-harvest cabbage, seeds should not be started too early, about 14 to 18 weeks before your first frost and transplanted in about 4 to 6 weeks. Seedlings should be straight and vigorous, not root bound and showing nitrogen deficiencies like purple leaf discoloration. If you are purchasing cabbage seedlings, chances are they have been started too early. Buy and plant them before they get too big. Seedlings can be set out in early spring for a summer crop, and in June for the fall crop. In hot climates, plant early or in late summer to fall for winter and spring harvests. Seedlings should be spaced every 24 inches, although early maturing types can be spaced 15 to 18 inches apart in the row.
Types of heirloom cabbage
Heirloom green cabbage can be more or less divided into three maturation groups by type: early pointed varieties like Early Jersey Wakefield; late-summer maturing flat head cabbages like Early Flat Dutch; and autumn-maturing round head types like Danish Ballhead — which are long keeping and best for making sauerkraut. Additionally there is the Savoy cabbage with frilly leaves, harvestable in autumn. Modern breeding has blurred these distinctions to some degree, especially with the small, round hybrid heading varieties suitable for dense plantings and earlier maturation.
An early maturing summer cabbage is Early Jersey Wakefield, which has a small pointed head and compact growth habit with light to medium green leaves. This variety was probably introduced from England to the United States around 1840. Maturation is about 10 weeks, the heads are 4 by 9 inches, and they weigh 2 to 3 pounds. Similar to Jersey is Charleston Wakefield, introduced in 1902 by the Peter Henderson Seed Company of New York. This cabbage was selected for larger heads and thus later maturity. It is ready within two weeks of Jersey, and the heads can weigh 5 pounds.
Winningstadt is another pointed early type with bluish-green leaves and heads typically weighing between 2 and 3 pounds. Plants are ready in about 75 to 90 days, depending on how early they were set out. It tends to keep in the field longer than other varieties before splitting. Winningstadt is an old German type named after the town in which it was popularized. It was first introduced in the United States in 1866 by J.J.H. Gregory and Sons of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Seed is becoming harder to locate, but it is still available.
Copenhagen Market is the next earliest type of cabbage, first introduced around 1909 by a Danish seed company and in 1911 by Burpee. It represented the newest in round but earlier producing cabbage. Leaves are grey-blue-green. The heads are around 4 to 6 pounds and about 6 inches across. It matures approximately 75 to 80 days from transplant.
Late Flat Dutch is a classic early fall-maturing cabbage with large flattened heads weighing a hefty 8 to 12 pounds when well grown, a foot across, medium green heads with the outer leaves blue-green (see photo on Page 24). It is an old Dutch variety dating to the 1840s, but likely derived from older types. It does best in cooler regions.
Danish Ballhead was the standard late-season round-headed storage and processing cabbage for a century. Recently it has been supplanted by newer hybrids, but it remains an excellent and productive cabbage. Leaves are covered with a heavy bloom, giving it an overall silver-blue-grey color. Heads are very solid, about 5 to 6 pounds. It reaches maturity about 15 to 16 weeks after transplanting, typically in late September. Plants should be set out 24 inches apart. It is derived from a short-stemmed strain of Amager from the Netherlands, a variety probably dating to the 15th century. Danish Ballhead was first listed by Burpee in 1887.
The Savoy cabbage is quite distinct from the other types and not nearly as widely grown. It is a late-season cabbage that does best in cooler conditions. It forms a loose head with heavily blistered leaves, dark green, while other varieties have blue tones. Some weigh from 6 to 10 pounds when grown well and are quite frost-hardy.
In the late 19th century, there were numerous types of Savoy recognized, including loose head and early types, but it never enjoyed the same popularity in the United States as in Europe. Savoy probably dates to the 16th century, if not earlier, grown in America by Thomas Jefferson, though not well-known here before the latter part of the 19th century. It possesses a distinctly delicate flavor and texture, and could stand to be more widely grown.
Heirloom varieties of Savoy are a bit hard to locate, but January King and Perfection Drumhead are in the American seed trade. January King dates to the 1880s, and has purple flushed heads weighing 3 to 5 pounds and forming late in the season, while Perfection Drumhead Savoy, introduced before 1880, produces large heads with finely curled leaves on short stalks. The French variety Aubervilliers is available from European companies, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds carries it as well.
Cabbage is a great plant to incorporate into your garden and your diet. Whether heirloom or modern hybrid, there are a multitude of ways to enjoy this plant and its health benefits.
Seven strategies for finding and saving heirloom vegetable seeds.
Ethnobotanist and former director of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, Lawrence Davis-Hollander enjoys gardening and cooking, as well as admiring bald eagles and seasonal wildflowers at a nearby preserve.