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November 13, 2018

Hey Kale, Your Closest Relative is Crunchier, Yummier and Even Healthier. Oh, and Apparently It's Cool Again - Some Cabbage Love



As Food and Wine magazine wrote this month - 'The Cabbage Craze is Officially 'Real'. I would add "The cabbage craze is real again.".

Of course, there are other family members to thank for this resurgence in total-brassica-love such as the kimchi 'kraze', (or any fermented brassica for that matter), cauliflower (both in it's 'steaks' and 'riced' forms), Kohlrabi and it's Instagramable visual appeal, and even Brussel's Sprout (now that we all know how to prepare them properly (raw and sliced in winter salads or oven roasted with sea salt and a spritz of walnut oil).

Sure, kale is still cool (for some) but honestly, it's probably the most challenging to prepare in the kitchen as it must be perfectly fresh (pre-cut in poly bags just won't do) and we all know the one or two supermarkets that have some mysterious ability to actually keep Tuscan kale crispy and fresh for 5 hours (until we bring it home and store it in the fridge.). Unfortunately, at least in our house - unless there is kale in the garden which one can pick fresh, it's far easier to turn to an old half-a-head of cabbage found in the back of the fridge which the clever home chef can trim off the oxidized greybits and rescue it for some lucky dish and thus 'save-the-day'.

Young cabbage plants (an kohlrabi in the background) in our garden last summer. This is an early variety, sown in late May in the greenhouse and set out in mid June, the heads were mature by early July and were as sweet as an apple and crispy like Iceberg lettuce. The bed was complete by the end of July and replanted with a non-brassica crop (dill).


Cabbage it seems has always been a lifesaver, not just on busy weekday evenings after work, but back almost to antiquity. One of it's most valued traits is its storage-ability. Before refrigeration (which really wasn't that long ago as my dad remembers when we only had an ice box (with ice delivered twice a week!), there were pits and root cellars - at least here in New England. We still have one but rarely use it but cabbage, though much maligned by some Europeans 400 years ago who dismissed it as a peasant crop (it was, after all), saved countless lives along with other brassicas like turnips and rutabaga.

We would be hard-pressed to find one distant relative who didn't survive on cabbage or a winter brassica - regardless of our ethnicity if one traces their heritage back to Europe, northern Asia, and even Japan or Korea. In many ways, cabbage is the true hero of the vegetable kingdom - and not just during the Middle Ages, but today with its cancer-fighting phytochemicals and who knows what else, we have much to thank cabbage for. Sure, the sulfur compounds might bother a few, but as my dad would say - those farts are 'cabbage kisses' (eww, sorry).


Drum-head cabbages are old-fashioned and are often found in Asian markets (or sometimes organic markets) wrapped in plastic to help maintain their unique, crispy quality. Don't be put off by their flatter heads, sometimes wider than a dinner plate, they are usually very sweet and have a higher water content than most winter storage cabbage, and thus are more tender and useful both raw and cooked. Given the option at the market, I will choose a flat-head over a round one.


In our house, this has always been true. Thanks to my Lithuanian heritage I am hard-wired to not merely 'like' cabbage - but to truly crave this Eastern European staple. I can remember my parents and my older aunts and uncles laughing about how old they were going to live due to their cabbage consumption (my grandfather and my Dad lived until 100 years of age so who knows?).  For others though, it may just be because cabbage is sweet and delicious. Crunchy, yummy and useful in so many dishes in the fall and early winter when the large storage cabbages come to market - the world of cabbage while to the supermarket shopper may seem boring, is indeed surprisingly broad and diverse. Close relatives like kale and collards aside, just plain old heading cabbage is anything but common to the clever gardener and curious cook.

One of the best things about keeping a home veg gardens isn't just fresh, healthy vegetables - it's that you can choose what varieties you want to grow - and when it comes to cabbage - don't fall for what's available at garden centers or as seedlings in 6 packs - for bedding plant growers generally know even less than produce buyers for supermarkets - and you will most likely end up with ordinary, generic and under-performing varieties simply because we all aren't asking for the best cabbage, or the newest, or oldest heirloom, or the tastiest. Plug growers will just keep ordering the least expensive seed from their mass market seed suppliers because as far as they are concerned - the consumer is just fine with what they have already. This is why those labels found in 6 packs with names like Danish Ball Head, Red Acre, Golden Acre or even simple ones that just say 'cabbage' are still the same labels as the ones printed in the 1980's. They assume that we don't care.



Commercial growers assume that most consumers don't care about the variety they are buying, and the sad truth is - they are right. We, gardeners, care though and should know better when it comes to buying a flat of seedlings - especially when finding one labeled simply 'Cauliflower' (or 'Cabbage'). The horticultural system doesn't make it easy for plug growers to get new or the best varieties either. I've seen their seed-source catalogs, and they are limited to mass-produced varieties that are generally old and haven't changed since 1970. Plug growers grow what they know the buyer at a big box store will buy, and usually, that buyer isn't that informed either. We can change this though - look at how the heirloom tomato trend changed the varieties nurseries now offer? We just have to care and sales data will train buyers and growers to try harder.

Think about it -those colored plastic plant labels in some veggies haven't changed from the 1970's. Cabbage varieties like ' Golden Acre' or 'Danish Ball Head' - even 'Savoy' still appear. (Savoy is a group or type, not a variety). What can you do? Look for nurseries who care about plants, those who hand write their labels and may offer new or choice heirlooms that can only be found in the specialty or trusted seed catalogs (like Johnny's, or Fedco). Better yet - order seed from reliable sources and grow your own. You can do it! (my book may help!).

But maybe that's about to change now that we trained the system to pay more attention to what we really want to grow - I mean, look at how quickly plug growers adapted to adding heirloom tomatoes to their lists?

Thankfully, we savvy types can order seed from many great sources of interesting, choice and premium varieties of cabbage - most of which will never find a space on a plug growers list for buyers to choose from. It would be too difficult for the few plug growers who supply the Home Depot's, Lowes, Costco's and Walmart's to ask their buyers to ask agent to ask their liner grower to ask their plug grower to deviate from their normal way of acquiring seed - from the largest seed houses in the world who buy inexpensive seed of old, generic varieties in great volume to fill the garden centers of the world.

Those who dare may order a pound of seed or so of a great variety from a Johnny's or Fedco, but there is always the risk that the consumer who is stopping by the hardware store to buy a bag of grass seed and fertilizer, sees the tomato plants outside and thinks 'I should really plant the veg garden this weekend', and then perhaps chooses their entire season's-worth of plant via 6 packs. Cabbage then, if they are interested, is usually just an afterthought - "Honey - do you want red cabbage or savoy?", and then that's about the extent of it. ]

Home-grown brassica plants from seed will produce the largest and healthiest plants for many reasons, but mainly because they will have been raised without PGR treatment. Chemicals sprayed to make seedlings look stocky are used universally by growers to create a healthy-looking transplant.  These will always look 'healthier' than home-raised ones, dense and ticght with thick stems. Don't be fooled, start your own seed and never use PGR's or Plant Growth Regulators (root and foliar applications of various chemical's). It's why that store bought tomato plant always looks nicer than one grown at home - even in ideal greenhouse conditions (and it's why fall mums look so dense and mounded), I'm not anti-chemical for I use both organic and inorganic fertilizer, but with food crops.

We, however, dare to look deeper.

We want to grow the finest, the best quality cabbage or even a very unusual but outstanding variety that grows tremendously large, or has some unique quality that enhances the creativity of the home chef. I like to approach it as "if the finest chefs of the world chose the cabbage variety they would want to serve in their finest restaurants - which ones would they choose?" And then, I would grow those in my home garden.

With my book on growing vegetables due to come out in early January 1, 2019 (Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening - (and yes - feel free to pre-order it right now on Amazon - shameless pitch!), I am tuned in to cabbage. In it I dedicate an entire chapter to this veg. I share lots of new cultural information on how to sow and grow the brassica's (the cabbage family) as well for growing the crop well is not exactly the easiest of tasks. Few have great luck when it comes to cabbage in the garden.

My favorite cabbage as a raw veggie is really a toss-up between Carflex and any red cabbage. Caraflex has a short season so it's a treat for a month in summer, but red cabbage stores well as become number one for much of the rest of the year.


Just as a musician is often asked "so what's your favorite song?'  I'm often asked "What is your favorite vegetable?' Truly, hands down for me it is cabbage. Really. In fact, it's red cabbage if you really must know. As a kid red cabbage felt fancy to me. Only found in restaurants or at salad bars and for some reason, it always tastes sweeter. I could occasionally get my parents to plant a row but they felt that red cabbage was wasteful in the garden for it didn't store well and one could not make sour kraut with it. Red cabbage was reserved mainly for two things - fresh eating in salads and sometimes in sauerbraten. It wasn't practical, and as such, was a novelty they planted to appease me. their nerdy child. White cabbage was more useful, for use in slaws, or kraut in the late fall and in those inevitablele pots of cabbage soup all winter. Yes, we were that Lithuanian.

Cabbage must be grown with perfect to keep its crispy quality. After harvest care is important too if one wants to keep the perfect crunch. Even cabbage from the market must be soaked overnight and stored in a polybag and then refrigerated overnight for maximum crunch-factor. The thing is, this crunch is what one will get from a head picked fresh from the garden.

Fall planting of cabbage in September benifits from a floating row cover, if only to keep cabbage butterflies from laying eggs and by providing a bit of warmth in late autumn. A fabric or poly mulch helps keep late summer weeds to a minimum.

A hundred years ago folks really appreciated and knew how to deal with cabbage. Two hundred years ago and they really knew how valuable their crop of cabbage was.  It often meant the difference between famine and life. It was preservable, either in cold storage or as a pickled ferment, and it paired perfectly with most of the storage meats, especially those from the curing shed like pork. In France, we find this best expressed in the classic Pot au Feu with its charcuterie, root veggie s,sausages and various cabbages including fermented cabbage. Germany, Eastern Europe, Austria, Switzerland even China has its braised cabbage dishes based on winter stock from the larder and root cellar. In a time before refrigeration a little kraut enhanced a pork belly, ham or confit duck leg pulled fresh from its comfy plunge of fat in a cold barrel kept somewhere cool. It's how many of our ancestors survived, and cabbage was often the partner in what many of us now consider high-fare dining.

Understanding cabbage takes some homework if you are new to cabbage. First, think of varieties as three main types - Early, mid-season and late.  This is how cabbage was organized by farmers who grew it in the mid 19th century but few today ever think about 'type'or variety beyond what they know. WIth cabbage, all 'types'have their star performers, and to enjoy really great - and I mean really great cabbage, you will have to test a few varieties out and type them for yourself, for like so many vegetables -the finest varieties are often a bit harder to find - meaning that one will have the most luck  with varieties found in reputable seed catalogs - and from the ones who actually grow the crops or breed them themselves and not from a generic package found in a seed rack. Certainly, not from seedlings found at a large garden center unless one really knows the variety well.

Late cabbage often has beautifully tinted leaves hiding a tender, crisp interior. Sown in July or even early August, plants in our New England garden can often remain outside until Thanksgiving.


VARIETIES TO TRY

True cabbage connoisseurs have their favorites,and more often than not the top winner here is a variety known as 'January King' and forget about finding it in markets, this giant, purple-tinted hard-headed late cabbage is one you will need to grow yourself - along with the short list of other top plant-geek favorites, including mine - the early cone-headed 'Caraflex', a weird pointy cabbage the British call a 'hispi' type.

If you don't believe me, try to grow an early cabbage like a conical or cone-headed variety next year - like Caraflex F1even in your raised beds. I suggest a variety called 'Caraflex', an early, small cone-shaped cabbage which is easy to grow. even in containers as an early summer cabbage. It's being discovered by top chefs as well as by foodies who are growing it in their backyard gardens. I have even found it sold in some specialty markets this fall (Wegman's and Whole Foods in the Northeast).


'Caraflex cabbage, a cone-shaped delight.


Talk about sweet and crispy,  Caraflex is tender, crispy and delicious that it is being marketed by its breeder in Europe along with other early, tender and sweet cabbages as 'Léttage' (Lettuce and Cabbage-like. You heard it here, first.). Because these cabbages are lower sulfur (i.e. less farting) yet high in sugar - they taste sweeter. Although best of all is that tender 'crunch factor'.  Brassica Magazine(yes - there is such a thing) lists these along with other trends as 'Brassica Concepts' that are changing how cabbage and other brassicas are being marketed. Expect in the near future Kohlrabi sticks pre-packaged (sold as Kohrispy) and new shrink-wrapped Danish flat-head tender and crispy cabbages. These are all hot items in Dutch supermarkets. The days of tough, woody leather-like cabbage may be over. Remember though- it will take time for consumers to adapt, but you can grow these varieties at home.

Caraflex produced such a slender head that it can be grown in large containers. I have grown great crops in elevated cedar beds.


It is short-lived in slaw as it will wilt and sweat out moisture quicker than storage cabbage but just dress it immediately before serving. A slaw made with 'Caraflex' is sensational - as tender as one made from Iceberg lettuce in a way, yet sturdy enough to saute in butter as well. OK - In pork fat. Who am I kidding?

'Carflex' isn't an heirloom variety though, introduced worldwide by its breeder Bejo Seeds, Inc. in 2016 yet trialed a few years earlier and distributed first by Johnny's Selected Seeds in the US for trial  - I first grew it in 2011.  So while this month's Food and Wine magazine promotes it as 'a lesser-known heirloom', it's new. It's so popular that the breeder has even published 'sensory data on how well people like its taste and texture. It has also been awarded an RHS Award of Merit.

Young cabbge seedlings still outside where they were sown in mid-May. The warmer and much brighter sun along with spring breezes keep these plants sturdy and strong. If a hatch of cabage butterflies is seen, I move them to the protection of the greenhouse until I plant them out in the garden. I've lost many trays of seedlings to the almost invisible larvae, but plants grown this way are much healthier than those found in garden centers in spring as they have never been treated with PGR's and the varieties are always better.


MASTERING CABBAGE

Like most brassica crops, growing cabbage well takes some commitment. Crop rotation is essential, yet difficult to achieve in the home garden if one keeps raised beds. Why rotate? For a number of reasons but most relate to disease. Clubroot and certain insects which lay their eggs in the autumn and hatch in the cold, early spring are problematic and difficult to steer around if one grows cabbage in a soil where any other brassica crop was grown the previous year. Forget about myths like marigolds and companion plants, for while nematodes dislike their roots, there is little data that this benefits cabbage at all.  I also discourage manure teas and other fads as cabbage is a heavy feeder and may require you to shop the carb aisle (blue instant fertilizer) if you really want it to grow stupendously. Hey, we all like a Twinkie now and then.

Sowing cabbage seed is often where the home grower makes a crucial but fatal mistake. While we often think of brassica (cruciferous - the old name) crops as cold weather crops, you might be surprised to know that cabbage germinates best at high temperatures - 80 - 85 degrees. Once germinated, plants can handle cooler temps, and knowing why this is will help you understand many of the requirements that will enhance cabbage (and other brassicas) success. Without getting into too much detail - all brassica's are native to the warm Mediterranean. As biennials, they naturally bloom in their second year during the hot early summer and set seed which drops into warm soil. Cool, moisture-rich weather comes in the autumn and seeds germinate, grow all winter in a cool, maritime winter, and then bloom and set seed in the summer again. When we try to grow cabbage or any brassica, knowing this helps us understand things like why cabbage and broccoli like warm germination temps but grow best when it is relatively cool.

Early ball-head types are very tender yet crisp, never fiberous. I think they could almost be named an entirely different vegetable than tougher storage-types. If you find cabbage to be too sulfurous or tough, try these. They don't store well however, so one rarely finds them in supermarkets, but their looser heads and tender leaves make a superior slaw - look for them at some local farmer's markets, or grow early cabbage yourself - as it's a treat few have ever experienced.


Plants should and could be set out in cooler weather of course as they grow larger. I wait to start all of my brassica seed be it broccoli, cauliflower or kale until June. Why so late? I have a good reason, and it's backed up by some new research. Later sowing of brassicas in man parts of the country gives the plants a healthier start for a few reasons. First, the bright early summer sunshine keeps the seedlings growing short and stout (a reminder that many commercial growers cheat by using PGR's or plant growth regulators on most of our veg. seedling crops which makes cells grow shorter, resulting in a more marketable ('healthier-looking') seedling. The sad part is many PGR's last a while in the soil and plants, and I  have found that plants grown from seed out on my own deck in full sun grow the best crops. Sure, the seedlings don't look as tight and thick-stemmed as the ones on the shelves at the nursery, but I know why - and, it's totally natural.

Sticky yellow paper traps will show you when the hatch or 'flights' of certain insects occur in your garden. Here, we are looking for the date of our largest flight of cabbage root maggot fly, usually in mid-spring while temps hover near 40 deg. Note this date and plant seedlings of all brassica's after it. even though there will be 5 or 6 more hatches, by the second largest hatch again in cool weather in autumn, the plants will be large enough to handle a bit of root damage from munching larvae. Why bother? Imagine the amount of insecticide used commercially on the entire cabbage family. Unless you can afford to buy organic year-round, these are great tips to use at home.

The second reason why I sow seeds later near the summer solstice is that research has shown that late sowing of brassica crops helps many avoid the biggest hatch (flight) of a destructive cabbage insect -the dreaded cabbage root fly maggot. The same goes for radishes, turnips and other cabbage family crops by the way. Ever get those brown tunnels in radishes or suffered from your cabbage plants that looked so healthy for a couple of months but discovered that they started wilting on hot days? That's why. Tiny rot maggots dine on the roots, and the largest hatch in most areas is in late April until mid-May. There are typically 7 other hatches but they rarely affect larger plants.

The cabbage root fly maggot (Delia radicum)  starts life as a simple fly that looks rather like a tiny harmless house fly. Mature females lay their last eggs in the autumn, looking for the roots of any brassica crop- from arugula to brussels sprouts, where the eggs can lay in the soil over-winter, and then hatch as soon as outside temps in spring reach 40 deg. Usually just as we all traditionally planted our broccoli, kale and cabbage seedlings outside. The largest flight happens near the end of cold weather season - when temps tip just above 40 to 50 degrees.

Late crops of any of the Asian brassicas are often more tolerant of insect damage. I sow my cress, Napa cabbage, Chinese Cabbage and Tatsoi in late August in raised beds. A floating row cover keeps the butterflies at bay and once light frosts kill the bugs off, the cloths can keep these greens fresh and frost-free in the garden nearly until Christmas. It also keeps the dogs from eating them (they can't help themselves!).


Cabbage root fly maggots are tiny larvae which feed on the roots of all brassica crops - resulting in wilted plants just as the plants start to look their finest - in late June and July, or brown worm trails and tunnels in radishes, turnips and rutabagas.  While Floating row covers may keep butterflies from laying eggs, they would be disastrous in controlling cabbage root fly. Adults hatch from eggs which have been eggs laid in the soil during the previous year. A row cover will only trap them in under the cover. Great for cabbage buutterfly, but not for soil born insects. Crop rotation would help, but few of us have the space to rotate ever 5-7 years.

The steps recently published by the UMass Extension service in steering your crops around the hatch of cabbage root fly maggots  is something I outline in detail in my book, but briefly - care begins in the previous year by noting what beds have had brassica crops growing in them and then avoiding those beds for other brassica crops in the following spring (crop rotation). Don't forget - this includes late turnips, sprouting broccoli, Napa cabbage, and Asian greens and arugula - yes, both species of arugula are brassicas. Note that cabbage root fly maggots also feed on broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, parsnips, radish, rutabaga, and turnips.

A floating row cover saved many a brassica crop from butterflies and moths which find the leaves the perfect home for their eggs and larvae, but the fabric will do little to discourage other insect pests like root fly maggots which are already in the soil if one grew any brassica in the same bed the previous autumn. If you have no room to rotate, try covering the soil year round with a much and cross your fingers, or transplant seedlings after the first big spring flight  to avoid the worst damage.


Then there are flea beetles, but they are less problematic to cabbage crops as they merely are acne for young plants - more of an issue with radishes, mustards, and turnips.  For what it's worth - my tip for avoiding these pests is simple, but not for everyone. I've found that elevated cedar beds (the type on legs) deter them nearly 100% As flea beetles prefer to stay active near ground level, and not waist high. The use of fresh (replace every season) sterile potting mix helps tremendously in these raised beds that can be 3 feet off of the ground, and now I get big harvests of radishes that are clean - no chemical sprays needed. The same goes for other brassica crops like Napa cabbage.

Knowing what your particular pests are and when they hatch is key here. With Cabbage Root Fly Maggots I needed to know exactly what dates, particularly in the spring they hatched. I discovered that the first hatch was often around April 1st and in some years in late March if the snow melted by March 15th. To find out the largest flight or hatch for your garden you must set out yellow sticky traps. I get Safer brand sticky yellow cardboard traps and start setting ours in late March here in central Massachusetts. There will be no mistaking the big hatch of both flea beetles and cabbage root maggot fly as the adult fly's will stick to the yellow paper in great numbers.

Young, healthy cabbage set out without a mulch in late June.

One or two may be early, but one morning you will find the cards nearly covered. Take note of this date and repeat noting the temperatures and weather. A garden notebook is helpful, or start a spreadsheet. You should start seeing many agricultural universities and eventually Master Gardener programs starting to suggest many of these newer methods.  Many organic farmer organizations are advising growers to plant brassicas after the large spring flight of these insects. Home growers should find their best results coming not from the traditional methods of sowing seed outside in the garden early (soil would be too cold) and certainly never in flats one sets outside in late winter with the assumption that cabbage and broccoli like cold temperatures - but by sowing seed in ones own plugs or cells set outdoors once the warmer weather has arrived - where seeds will warm in the brilliant summer sun of late May (in the protection of your close watch on a deck or porch) and then setting young plants out into the garden near to the summer solstice.

Certainly, nursery purchased brassica's will sulk compared to these other methods. Try it and see, resisting what may look like 'healthy' cabbage and broccoli' at nurseries and starting your own seedlings is quick (especially during those peak growing days of June), and seed sown in a 6 pack of sterile soil will often produce young plants in just a few weeks which will look decidedly better.



5 comments :

  1. Another great post! I will definitely try growing cabbage in mid summer next year. Our biggest issue is with cabbage butterfly larva but row covers help a lot. This whole plant growth regulator scene is quite disturbing. Glad I grow all my own plants from seed.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Kristin - Cabbage butterfly is a huge problem for us too - in fact, they eat the seedlings while they are still in the greenhouse (getting in through the vents to lay eggs). I agree - floating row covers work the best. I should have added that the larger the field of cabbage (or any brassica) the less of a challenge larva damage seems to be - I think it's a game of numbers, and 6 or 8 plants in a rasied bed are more succeptble than 20,000 in a acre.As with many crops, larger plantings have an advantage.

    ReplyDelete
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  4. Anonymous10:28 AM

    I still like tomatoes better than fruit like steak

    ReplyDelete
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