It’s fall-garden prep time in Central Kentucky—early August—and we just put our cabbage and other cole-crop transplants into the garden.
This is a tough time of year to start something new. We’re elbow deep in herbs to dry and tomatoes to can, the weeds we’ve missed are going to seed, and I’m downright tired. Come October, though, when the tomatoes are gone and fresh herbs are just a dream, I’ll be grateful we planted for fall.
How to Grow Cabbage
Cabbages make wonderful intros and outros for the main garden season. They won’t tolerate the heat and sun of summer’s height, but they’ll thrive in early spring and late summer/fall gardens. Even with another month to six weeks of hot days to come, the cooler nighttimes and shortening daylight will carry the cabbages through.
For spring plantings, start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost. Harden off the cabbage seedlings, and put them in the garden two or three weeks before the last frost.
For a fall garden, start cabbage seeds indoors in mid- to late-summer, depending on your summer heat and first frost date. Be sure to give seedlings enough time to mature before nighttime temps dip into the 20s.
If you have mild winters, plant cabbage in early fall to overwinter and harvest in early spring.
Plant cabbage in the garden in full sun, 12 to 24 inches apart. If you’re looking for smaller cabbage heads, choose those varieties and plant them closer together. Spring-planted cabbages may grow smaller than those in fall, depending on how quickly the weather heats up. (Cabbage wants to bolt at around 80 degrees F.) Choose your varieties with this in mind, as well.
Cabbage likes consistent watering. Mulch will help to keep back weeds and hold moisture in the soil.
These cool-weather crops tolerate light freezes—28 degrees F or so. Row cover can give you another couple of degrees of protection and is a good idea for brassicas anyway, given the pest pressure from cabbage loopers.
Cabbage is also readily munched on by cabbage worms, cabbage root maggots, slugs, aphids and flea beetles. It’s a wonder we can harvest any at all for ourselves. Pest pressure tends to be less for springtime plantings.
Crop rotation is important, as flea beetles live in the soil, and all of cabbage’s pests are persistent.
How to Harvest Cabbage
Cabbages aren’t like tomatoes that pop off the plant into your hand. You’re going to need a knife. And keep your knife out of the dirt, otherwise you’ll dirty every head you cut after.
Find the stem at the bottom of the cabbage head, and slice straight across, parallel to the soil. You want to cut the stem and not the head, yet you don’t want to cut so low that you’re in the dirt. It’s a balance, but you’ll get the hang of it.
Peel off the loose outer leaves from the head.
Squeeze each cabbage head to determine its readiness for harvest. You want a firm head with leaves well filled-out. Cabbage heads can fake you out, looking like they’re ready but still having space inside. If you wait too long to harvest, the leaves underneath could grow too much and cause the head to crack.
Again, you’ll get the hang of this balance.
It’s best to harvest early in the day so the leaves maintain their crispness. Harvest when the cabbage heads are dry, if possible, or dry them off before storage or packing.
How to Eat Cabbage
Cabbages store well in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator or, in the case of many cabbages, in a waxed cardboard box in a fridge or walk-in cooler. You might be able to keep yours for a month or more.
Cabbage’s storage traits make it ideal for heavy meals that want to be eaten in wintertime. Think cabbage rolls stuffed with beef, stewed in tomato sauce; corned beef and cabbage; and fried cabbage with apples, bacon and onion.
Cabbage can be eaten in less-heavy dishes, too. You’ve probably enjoyed your share of coleslaw and sauerkraut. Slice cabbage into “steaks” and grill them drizzled with butter and garlic.
And riff on slaw with very thinly sliced cabbage tossed with lime juice and salt for an easy salad.
This veggie is versatile enough to push the culinary envelope, too. Use cabbage leaves as a crunchy, refreshing alternative to flour tortilla wraps. If you’ve spent any time on Instagram, you have seen whole roasted cabbage as a stand-in for roasted meats at holiday meals. (Too much?)
You can preserve cabbage by lacto-fermenting or canning as sauerkraut or by freezing. When freezing, realize the cabbage will thaw with a less-crisp texture, and plan to use it in casseroles and soups.
Cabbage is a versatile ingredient, and it’s good for you, too.
While cabbage may not be a beginner’s plant, it’s great for growers with a few seasons of experience. Get your row cover ready, and add cabbage to your spring and fall plans.