This week we are looking at summer cabbages, sowing, growing, harvesting.
In today’s podcast, Paul shows you how easy it is to grow them and looks at some of the pitfalls to be avoided.
Cabbage white butterfly larvae
A bit nibbled, but this cabbage is a great colour!
If you look at it one way, there are basically two types of cabbage: balling and leafy – and the conditions required for balling are quite different for leafy cabbages. That doesn’t mean that balling cabbages don’t have leaves, you understand.
Then, on the other hand, cabbages can be classified according to when they are harvested – spring, summer, autumn and so on. It is true to say that you can have a cabbage almost every day of the year if you plan accordingly, but be aware – the sulphurous compounds in the cabbage will play havoc with your personal exhaust system, so be prepared to spend a good few hours standing outside.
That said, in common with all the brassicas, cabbage produces its own chemical warfare substances, mainly aimed at invertebrates, that can help keep your gut in good order – a little like a low dose of garlic.
This is the big problem when growing cabbages. Well, not growing them actually. It is caused by a fungus (Plasmodiophora brassicae), which invades the root cambium (the growing and dividing cells in the root) and causes them to create all kinds of contortions.
The result is a root that won’t work, and therefore a starved cabbage. The fungus isn’t poisonous to us, so there are no problems there – you just get small, weedy cabbages.
There was a chemical solution to this problem but it was withdrawn some years ago. This leaves only one option: biological methods.
The recommendations say you should leave the soil dormant from cabbage or other brassicas for a decade, but this is not always possible – how many of us have room to achieve such a thing? One thing you can do is to leave the soil free from human feet. At least you should be able to avoid spreading spores about the place by not walking on your soil.
Then, when you plant out your cabbages, do it in a lot of lime – I mean a real lot of lime. This inhibits the fungus, and if you plant your cabbages late, they will have a well-developed root system. I always dig a big hole, half fill it with fresh compost and lime (about 3:1 compost to lime) and then plant in this. Before you do, sprinkle a trowelful of lime in the hole too, so you get a barrier.
You can sow cabbage directly in the soil, even in early spring, if you protect it with a cloche. However, it is frequently best to sow indoors in large modules or 8cm pots. Again, use lime and sow about three seeds per module/pot. Discard all but the fastest-growing plant. If you sow in March, by May you will have large seedlings to plant out as described above.
Now you can continue sowing every few weeks, and I suppose we eat about two cabbages a week, so it forces me to sow enough seed for eight cabbages a month, and I can manage this right through the year, using the polytunnel and cloches for a little extra warmth and protection in the winter.
There is not much to do to them once they are in the soil. I plant them about 30–45cm apart in rows, with about 60cm between the rows. This way they ball up nicely.
We used to worry about cabbages. From butterflies to aphids, there was always something at them. Pigeons eat the young seedlings as do mice, rats (always rats on allotments) and then the hens have their fair share too! My young bantams got out once and ate almost every cabbage on all the plots – I was not popular!
These days there is a single solution to most, if not all, of the protection problems with cabbages. Horticultural fleece is just perfect for keeping insects out and cabbages in. It is a nylon mesh, which keeps out everything except rain and air.
All cabbages need to be treaded in to stop them from rocking about in the wind. This rocking motion has a physiological effect on the plants, causing them to grow ‘loose’ – that is, they don’t ball up properly.
Cabbages need around 15°C to germinate. Sow them indoors, mostly in the winter, and transplant from modules. It is the only time the plant is really temperature sensitive.
They do best in soil that was previously used for potatoes: fairly fertile and well dug. They should never be allowed to dry out, and will never recover from a period of drought.
This is a dwarf-looking cabbage that can be planted 30cm apart. Sow in a nursery bed in July and then transplant in October at 45cm apart. Harvest when you need them from April onwards. (Hence the name!)
This is a huge plant – you’d only need one of these a week! Sow in February and transplant in May. They need about 16°C to germinate, so bottom heat is sometimes a help if you are sowing in the coldest part of winter.
The name is a little misleading, as December is the end of the harvest period, which starts in October. Large heads of blue-green outer leaves and crisp hearts. Do make sure these plants are very firmly heeled in. They have to take the brunt of the autumn gales when they are at their largest size.
Someone said that the name ‘Greyhound’ referred to the speed by which it came up. There might be something in it. They have conical heads and really do firm up quickly. This is a reliable favourite for the kitchen. Sow in February for plants to be transplanted under a cloche in April. You will get cabbages by the end of June – this one really is quick out of the traps.
Because it is an early variety, and it comes from the frozen north, this is a good one to grow in the garden for excellent results where the weather is really harsh – though I have noticed it doesn’t like sitting in puddles. Sow in July and August and transplant by September. Cover with a cloche in the worst of the weather to be assured of good growth. Ready from spring onwards.
This is just like a savoy cabbage – purple/green and a sweet as can be. Does well in frost and is ideal for winter harvest. Sow in April and transplant in May/June. Keep well watered during early growth and it will be really good for the rest of the year. Harvest from November.
As the name suggests. Sow when you like (assuming you can get about 15°C), transplant whenever the plants are ready (when about as big as your hand) and harvest when you think there is enough of a cabbage for your needs. They maybe not the biggest, greenest or tastiest, but they are very forgiving and will grow in almost any conditions.