Cole slaw and corned beef simply wouldn’t be the same without cabbage.
Cole crops, or cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and the lowly cabbage were placed in the same family partly because they all have four-petaled flowers that look like a cross (Cruciferae is Latin for “cross bearing”). Luckily for us, there is no cross to bear when it comes to growing cabbages!
These densely headed members of the Brassica family are biennials grown as annuals. If you grow cabbage for seed, you will want to make sure there is some distance between your cabbage plants and other members of the Brassica family because cross-pollination can occur. Seriously. In fact, that’s how rutabagas came to be - cabbages crossed with turnips. Hmm, how about tiny cauliflowers that grow on a stalk, like Brussels sprouts - we could be on to something!
How cabbage grows
In the wild, as temperatures reach 80°F, two-year old cabbage heads send up a flowering stalk, the same way lettuce and spinach do, in a process called bolting. Tiny helicoptered seeds catch rides on every breeze, spinning their way to new homes. Over the next year, a taproot will go down and a head will form, preparing to repeat the cycle.
How to grow cabbage
Cabbage seeds should be planted 1/2 inch deep, with plenty of space around each plant. Cabbage plants can reach 2 feet in diameter. The more space they are given, the faster they will mature and the less likely they are to being attacked by pests or disease. Cabbage plants prefer sunny locations with good drainage, but they can tolerate partial shade. Cabbage grows best when given occasional deep waterings, rather than frequent shallow irrigation. Also, you can prevent many diseases by avoiding overhead watering. Cabbage is a heavy feeder, so you may want to work some aged compost into the soil before planting. In spite of having a taproot, cabbages can be grown in containers that are at least 8 inches deep. Rather than have all your cabbages reach harvestable size on the same day, it’s a good idea to plant seeds in succession.
Cabbage pests & diseases
There are plenty of pests and diseases that attack cabbage. The nice thing is, cabbage grows a set of outer leaves that frame a tightly packed head. Most cabbage pests never reach the inside of the head. That being said, it’s a good idea to know what you’re up against. Cabbageworms are the most common cabbage pest in San Jose. These small white imported butterflies have black dots on their wings and they are relentless. Eggs are laid on the underside of leaves. Larvae emerge and start feeding like crazy. You can hand pick the caterpillars and I have taught my dogs to chase these pests away.
Row covers can also protect your plants from cabbageworms. Cutworms, aphids, armyworms, cabbage maggots, darkling beetles, earwigs, flea beetles, wireworms, whiteflies, leaf miners, nematodes, and the ever-popular slugs and snails will appreciate finding cabbage in your landscape, but good cultural care and regular monitoring can minimize the damage. Cabbage is prone to several diseases, including clubroot, damping off, downy mildews, black rot, yellow virus, Verticillium wilt, Phytophtora root rot, and bacterial leafspot.
Don't let all those threats deter you from trying your hand at growing cabbage. If you buy cabbage in the store, chances are 30 to 1 that it was grown in China. This is unfortunate, because cabbage is easy to grow, it looks nice in a landscape, and all that shipping traffic can’t be good for the environment. Grab a pack of seeds, or a couple of seedlings from your local garden store, and give cabbage a try.
Peasants and Senators have been growing cabbage for nearly 3,000 years. You can do it, too!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!