Planning a vegetable garden this year? Consider cabbage.
Cabbage is often-overlooked gem in vegetable garden.
I didn’t make any resolutions on New Year’s Day but I did eat cabbage. That’s because cabbage is reputed to bring prosperity. And to ensure that the roof of your house won’t blow off.
We spent a boatload of money to have our roof replaced in 2009 and we are perched on a windy site, so we could do with both the prosperity and the guarantee against gusts and gales.
Although I don’t dote on cabbage, as the Greeks and Romans are said to have done, I do give it more respect than did the 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper. He focused on its flatulence-producing effect, writing that “Cabbages are extremely windy… as windy…as can be eaten, unless you eat Bagpipes or Bellows.”
Culpeper might have been less faultfinding had he known that raw cabbage is one of the garden’s best sources of Vitamin C — more per calorie than orange juice — and an excellent source of dietary fiber. It’s also a vegetable recommended for losing weight, although I wouldn’t wish a cabbage soup diet on anyone. Nor do most doctors.
Cabbage was one of the vegetables brought early to North America, first to Canada in the 16th century by the French navigator Jacques Cartier. It’s been largely uphill since then. Despite the many ways it can be prepared in the kitchen — a Google search of “cabbage, recipes” turns up 3,410,000 — cabbage gets little respect from gastronomes.
And not a whole lot more from plant breeders. Cultivars may number in the hundreds, but don’t expect a wheelbarrowful of new cabbages every spring.
All-America Selections, which trials new vegetables and flowers for home gardeners, has awarded its prized red, white, and blue seal to a cabbage only 16 times since 1934. (The last award was in 2000 for ‘Savoy Express’.)
In Seed Savers Exchange's inventory, the number of commercially available nonhybrid cabbages decreased by more than half between 1980 and 2000, one of only a handful of vegetables to “lose” so many varieties.
Despite being on the breeders’ back burner, you can find green (aka white), blue-green, and red cabbages; smooth-leaf and savoy cabbages (which have seersuckerlike leaves); round, flattened, and pointy cabbages; and cabbages ranging from the size of soccer balls to as small as croquet balls.
There are varieties for truncated seasons, such as ‘Parel’, and cabbages like ‘Rio Grande’ for warm climates, where seeds most often are sown in the fall. Or choose cultivars such as ‘Reaction’ have resistance to fusarium wilt, a soil-based fungi that causes leaves to wilt and die.
If you’d like to try an heirloom cabbage, an old, open-pollinated cultivar developed more than 50 years ago, check out the online catalog of Heirloom Seeds, a family-run seed company in Pennsylvania. Among its offerings are the savoy ‘Drumhead (1797) and ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’, a conical-shaped variety introduced in 1840.
Most of New England offers just the conditions cabbages like — cool summers and even moisture. Short- and midseason cultivars, which are ready to cut in fewer than 85 days, tend to have a milder flavor than late-season cabbages, which take more than 85 days to mature. Days-to-maturity with cabbages, don’t forget, are from transplanting, not from sowing seeds.
Karan Davis Cutler is one of eight garden writers blogging at Diggin' It. She's a former magazine editor and newspaper columnist, is the author of scores of garden articles and more than a dozen books, including “Burpee - The Complete Flower Gardener” and “Herb Gardening for Dummies.” She now struggles to garden in the unyieldingly dense clay of Addison County, Vt., on the shore of Lake Champlain, where she is working on a book about gardening to attract birds and other wildlife. She blogs regularly for Diggin’ It.
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