The cole crops that we grow today evolved from wild plants native to the coastal regions of Northwestern Europe and the Mediterranean. Cabbage might well be considered the granddaddy of them all, being the first member of the diverse brassica family to be cultivated.
Cabbage varieties can be distinguished by shape (round, flat or pointed), color (green, blue-green, purple or red) and leaf type (smooth or crinkled) and what you choose to grow depends on your personal taste. ‘Golden Acre’, ‘Dynamo’ and ‘Farao’ are early-maturing green varieties that form solid round heads with excellent eating quality. ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ and ‘Charleston Wakefield’ are heirlooms that have been grown in the U.S. since the 1800s but their conical shaped heads still surprise uninitiated gardeners.
Purple and red varieties add interest to our gardens, vibrant color and flavor to our food and healthy nutrition to our diets. They contain phytochemicals called anthocyanins which have been associated with improved memory function and reduced cancer risk. Availability of red and purple varieties tends to come and go as breeding improvements are made but current selections to look for include ‘Ruby Perfection’, ‘Red Acre’ and ‘Red Express’. Blue-green hybrids like ‘Blue Vantage’ or ‘Blue Dynasty’ have been bred with better disease resistance than most of the paler green types so look for those if your cabbage has been less than vigorous in the past. Savoy cabbage has lovely crinkled leaves and a sweet, tender heart. Recommended varieties include ‘Famosa’, ‘Alcosa’ and ‘Savoy Ace’.
Chinese cabbage, also known as Napa cabbage, is a different species from heading cabbage but it is easy to grow and has become very popular for grow-your-own gardeners. It is a vigorous grower with a delicate flavor and is often used for stir-fry and kimchi. Depending on variety it will produce a tight, barrel-shaped head or a loose head of crisp, frilly leaves. ‘Blues’, ‘Tenderheart’ and ‘Bilko’ are reliable producers. If you have trouble finding decent transplants this fall then try growing your own seedlings for planting in late winter or early spring.
Be on the lookout for aphids, cabbage loopers and cabbageworms; these common pests can decimate a crop if not controlled. Aphids can be dislodged with a strong spray of water or can be smothered with insecticidal soap. Caterpillars can be controlled with any insecticide that contains the active ingredient Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). Another option is to exclude the moth that lays the eggs by covering the plants loosely with lightweight row cover when they are very young. Plants can remain covered throughout the growing season but should be uncovered for fertilizing and periodic inspection.
Once you harvest your cabbage it can be braised, stuffed, stir-fried, fermented, pickled, shredded for coleslaw, chopped for salad or added to soups. It is fun to try several different types – who knew that common cabbage could be such a diverse and interesting vegetable!