In my early years of growing cabbage, I believed that the best cabbage varieties for my garden were fast-growing, disease-resistant hybrids. We all make mistakes, because although my fresh, organic cabbage was quite good, the flavor and texture varied little from cabbage I could buy at the store.
Everything changed when I switched to heirloom (or heritage) cabbage varieties, some of which are so tender that they border on being buttery, with mellow spicy flavours that vary with the seasons. And they are all so different! First I tried sweet little ‘Early Copenhagen Market’, then space-saving ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ and incredibly tasty ‘Golden Acre’. In every case there was a fascinating quality difference, which is one of the main reasons why we garden, isn’t it?
Before moving on, here is an anonymous nugget I ran across while reading reviews of heirloom cabbage varieties: “I admit that I was silly enough to think of cabbage as a relatively bland plant that probably wouldn't taste much different when plucked from my garden than it did when bought from the grocery store. WOW, is there a difference!”
Choosing Heirloom Cabbage Varieties
In his book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, writer and food historian William Woys Weaver devotes a lively chapter to cabbage, which he sorts into three groups: cabbage varieties with elongated or pointed heads (originally from the UK and Germany), round Copenhagen types from Denmark, and big Dutch drumheads.
- The elongated to pointed ‘Wakefield’ cabbage varieties were first selected in the Yorkshire region, and much further refined in America in ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ (1868) and more heat-tolerant ‘Charleston Wakefield’ (1892). In the UK, ‘Early Durham’, ‘April’ and other varieties planted in autumn as spring cabbage fall into this group, too. All are edible at a young age, long before they form actual heads, but the best thing about these cabbage varieties is the way the upright heads shed rain, thus keeping their health in drenching weather.
- Mostly round in shape and unbelievably tender, ‘Early Copenhagen Market’ and ‘Golden Acre’ are the butterheads of the cabbage world, unsurpassed for raw salads or lightly braised summer dishes. These cabbage varieties are great fits for small gardens, because they grow well with close spacing.
- Majestic drumhead cabbage varieties are fun to grow from early summer to fall, so they mature around the time of the first fall frosts. ‘Late Flat Dutch’ is most common variety, but German-bred ‘Brunswick’ and frilly ‘Perfection Drumhead Savoy’ are garden show-stoppers as well. The spreading plants require plenty of space, but how many ten-pound (4.5kg) cabbages do you really need? These are wonderful cabbage varieties for making into sauerkraut.
Tips for Growing Cabbage
“Need I remind my readers that with cabbages, soil is everything, and fertility is all the rest? Good cabbage land must be well manured,” writes Weaver, and of course he is right. Cabbage plants produce new leaves continuously, so they require a constant and balanced supply of nutrients. My personal method is to enrich roomy planting holes with two spadefuls of homemade compost mixed with a cup or so of an organic fertiliser made from poultry manure (poultry pellets would do as well).
Soil that is regularly enriched with compost is supposed to provide sufficient amounts of boron, but I have seen slow-growing cabbage plants perk up overnight when showered with a little household borax (2 tablespoons of borax mixed into a 3 gallon watering can). This should be done no more than once a season, because too much borax is bad news for healthy soil.
You also will need to protect plants from several types of leaf-eating caterpillars. In spring, covering plants with horticultural fleece helps warm the soil and buffers cold winds while keeping out insects, birds, and bunnies.
Caterpillars in particular love innocent young cabbage plants. When you see white butterflies flitting around your cabbage, you are watching the mothers of cabbage-eating caterpillars laying their eggs. You can hand pick these common cabbage pests, but it is much easier to keep the butterflies from accessing your plants with netting row covers. Without row covers, you will need to treat plants from time to time with a Bacillus thuringiensis or spinosad-based organic pesticide.
Big drumhead cabbage varieties and slow-growing reds require wide spacing, but you can interplant rocket, lettuce, or other fast-growing greens between the cabbage plants. You can also fill the space with small groups of onions grown from sets. Interplanting is often better than mulching early in the season, because slugs and earwigs can become a problem when provided with the irresistible combination of big cabbage leaves shading moist mulch.