Nothing says I love you like a cabbage (to paraphrase Farmer Paul Betz, one of our commercial grower representatives and owner of High Ledge Farm). Here’s what’s great about one of the most rock solid, high performing (yet often under-appreciated) vegetables.
Cabbages are versatile.
A few years ago, I had no idea there were so many different types of cabbage. How wrong I was. Let me count the ways… the depth and breadth and height of how this one crop can fill so many culinary niches: there are the tender, sweet fresh market cabbages, the crinkley savoy cabbages, cabbages for kraut, cabbages for storing into the winter, slaw cabbages and stir-fry cabbages.
Fresh market cabbage
Caraflex F1, Farao F1 and Primax are sweet, juicy and tender and are excellent eaten raw – in a salads or slaws. They tend to be smaller and more compact in size since they are meant to be eaten fresh, not stored or processed. This can make them more manageable since they can be used up in one meal or two, rather than taking up ½ a shelf in the fridge like some of the storage cabbages do.
The trick with these fresh market cabbages is to harvest them before they split. The juiciness that makes these fresh market cabbages so delicious is due to higher water content. If there’s a lot of rain when they are at or near maturity, the excess moisture can cause them to crack. They are still useable if this happens, but just not marketable. But these cabbages are so appealing that they are well worth the small amount of vigilance. Drago F1, though not as early maturing and not quite as tender, makes a good fresh market cabbage without a tendency to split.
Varieties that are suited for making sauerkraut like Kaitlin F1 have high dry matter and are much less juicy than the fresh market types.
Storage cabbages like Impala F1, Kaitlin F1 and Buscaro F1 have thicker, waxier wrapper (exterior) leaves and denser interiors. These are long season cabbages, generally planted 3 to 4 months before the first frosts in your area. The waxy wrapper leaves help protect the cabbage from pest damage and also help retain moisture and maintain quality during storage. Generally, longer season cabbages sit higher on their stems (whereas the fresh market cabbages sit flat on the ground). This is a desirable trait because it helps prevent moisture getting trapped under the bottom leaves, which can lead to disease.
Cabbages are adaptable.
Cabbage is a cold-hardy and frost tolerant vegetable. It can be one of the first plants that you sow in the early in the spring and one of the last crops that you harvest into the frosts of fall. Quicker maturing, fresh market cabbage like Primax, Farao F1 and Copenhagen mature in 65 days or less and can tolerate moderately warm temperatures (up to about 80 degrees) Plant these varieties successionally throughout the growing season for a continuous harvest.
If you desire storage cabbages, it requires some planning ahead. For our area of northern Vermont, where our first frost usually arrives between the end of September and early October, we seed our storage cabbage varieties in mid to late June for transplanting in early July.
Especially cold-hardy varieties like Famosa F1, Buscaro F1 and Impala F1 can be left in the field to withstand a few light frosts. Savoyed cabbages, like Famosa F1 in particular, improve in leaf texture and sweeten in flavor after undergoing several frosts.
Cabbages are nutritious.
At last year’s annual Kingdom Farm & Food Field Day at High Mowing’s Trials Garden, tour guide Jan led visitors on a tour of the cabbage patch. “Red cabbages”, he informed the group, “are higher in anthocyanin than blueberries”. “Great,” quipped a voice from the crowd, “but do you have a recipe for red cabbage pie?” So, while blueberries might still have the flavor (and dessert) advantage, it is still good to know that cabbage reigns nutritionally supreme.
Cabbage is notably high in Vitamin C and Sinigrin (a glusinolate that may prevent cancer). Savoy cabbage is particulary high in Sinigrin. Steaming, eating raw, or cooking for a short amount of time are the best ways to get the most of these cabbage nutrients.
Cabbages come in all shapes and sizes.
Cabbages like Primax and Red Express produce small heads weight 2-3 pounds. Other cabbages like Impala F1 and Capture F1 produce large heads weighing around 6 pounds. “Sweetheart” types, like Caraflex F1, are unique due to their pointed head and attractive outer leaf curl.
Many cabbage varieties will let you play with planting density a bit to affect the size of the head, which can be a nice trick if your market or your table prefers smaller heads in the summer but larger heads in the fall. In our Trial Gardens, we have planted Red Express, Famosa F1 and Farao F1 at 8” spacing in rows 12-15” apart to get compact heads and an earlier harvest.