The cabbages we know today were bred from wild mustard plants that grew around the Mediterranean region. The parent plants of modern cabbages were grown at least 1,000BCE and, in Roman times, were considered a delicacy.
Plant breeders, mostly in Europe, chose the characteristics they liked and selected only the plants that showed these characteristics.1 Over long periods of time, heads of cabbage, as we know them today, came into being.
Cabbages (Brassica oleracea var. capitata) are generally green or reddish-purple. The green can range from almost white to quite dark. Cabbages come in three basic shapes: round or ‘ballhead’ (which includes some ‘flattened’ varieties), conical and cylindrical. Cabbages with crinkled leaves are called savoy cabbages.
Early-, mid- or late maturing refers to the number of days from transplant to harvest. It also relates to their size. The faster the cabbage grows to maturity, the smaller it tends to be. Early-maturing cabbages can be ready in as little as 70 days (10 weeks), while late-maturing cabbages could take as long as 180 days (26 weeks / 6 months). If sown in late Winter or Spring, cabbages must be almost ready to harvest before the summer heat sets in. In western Sydney, that often means early-maturing varieties are best for Spring planting, while later-maturing varieties can be sown in late summer and early autumn. When sowing in mid- to late autumn, it’s probably best to stick with early- to mid-maturing cabbages to give them a chance to establish before the really cold weather of winter slows their growth.
Cabbage are a versatile vegetable – eaten fresh in coleslaw (which literally means “cabbage salad” 2), cooked in a varieties of ways (steamed, sautéed, grilled, roasted, boiled, in soups, stews, or stir-fry), or fermented, as in sauerkraut or kimchi. The outer, darker heaves are also edible, though they are a little tough. They are often used for making “cabbage rolls”. Due to their dark green colour, they usually have a higher iron content than the head itself. Should your cabbage remain in the ground too long and begin to go to seed, the flowers and immature seed pods are also edible.
Cabbages have been used in traditional medicine for conditions affecting the stomach: tummy pain, reflux, heartburn and ulcers. It has also been used to treat morning sickness and asthma; and in the prevention of osteoporosis. Whole outer cabbage leaves have been used to relieve breast-engorgement in lactating (nursing) mothers. It has been used, with some success, in juices or smoothies to lower cholesterol.3
Because it is packed with vitamin C, which leaches out in water, drinking the liquid in which cabbage has been boiled is said to to strengthen the immune system and is said to lessen the effects of hangovers.4
Eating large amounts of cabbage has been associated with increased flatulence, diarrhoea, and, possibly, hyperthyroidism. A large intake of cabbage may also affect the effectiveness of certain medications – always read the pamphlet that comes with medication. 5
HOW TO GROW BROCCOLI
Most often, late-maturing cabbages are started from seed in late summer and early autumn (Feb to early April). This gives the plant a chance to grow quickly while the weather and the soil is still warm. The stronger and healthier the plant is, the tougher the winter conditions it can take. The growth of plants slows in winter, and small seedlings will be susceptible to a heavy frost.
In western Sydney, cabbage seeds sown in late winter or early spring will need to be early to mid-maturing varieties that will be ready to harvest before or soon after the heat of summer sets in. This can be anywhere from mid-October in some years!
Cabbages, like all brassicas, are heavy feeders. You will need to grow them in very rich, composted soil. Do not grow them in an area where heavy feeders, such as pumpkin/zucchini/squash, have been growing, unless you enrich the soil before planting out your cabbages. A fortnightly feed with an organic, liquid feed will help if the pants seem to be struggling. Remember: the healthier the plant, the more resistant to pests and diseases and it will; especially the aptly-named cabbage white butterfly!
We have found that the best way of dealing with the cabbage butterflies and moths is exclusion, and use mosquito netting (bought on a roll at Spotlight) over plastic hoops made from irrigation or poly-pipe.
Ideally, your seed will have spent 6 to 8 weeks in the fridge before you sow it. The seeds of the Permaculture Sydney West seed bank are kept in a dedicated fridge, at a constant 5°C so they have been prepared for sowing. Start your seeds as soon as possible, preferably before the end of middle of April. The seed should germinate in 5 to 10 days and will be large enough to transplant into a small pot when the seedling has two or three sets of leaves.
Plant the small plants into their final growing position when they are between 5 and 8 cm tall. Remember to give them ample room – refer to the seed packet or the Seed Catalogue for optimum spacing. Plants grown too close together have to fight for soil space, water and nutrients. For those practising variations of “square foot gardening”, this means one cabbage per square foot. For larger cabbages, even more room may be needed. If growing in a container, generally the spacing would call for one cabbage per container (unless the “pot” is very wide).
Protect young seedlings from slugs and snails. In our garden, we use copper tape around an upturned pot from which we have removed the bottom. We plant the seedling, then gently place the bottomless pot over it, rotating the pot back and forth to bury the lip underground the to stop slugs from crawling underneath.
Depending on the variety of cabbage that you are growing, it could be produce a head in as little as 70 days. This will depend not only on what variety you choose, but what kind of weather conditions you have on your particular plot, and what kind of winter Western Sydney goes through.
CABBAGE IN THE PSW SEEDBANK (your seedbank)
- Cabbage ‘Early Jersey Wakefield: early maturing, conical shaped, light green, sweet, small heads up to 1kg
- Cabbage ‘Red Dutch’: mid- to late maturing, round, deep-red heads to 3.5kg
- Cabbage ‘Green Express‘: early to mid-maturing, green round heads to 1.5kg
- Cabbage ‘Danish Ballhead’: early to mid-maturing, small, green heads to about 17cm
- Cabbage ‘Golden Acre‘: early-maturing, mid-green, round head to 1.5kg, sweet
- Cabbage ‘Late Flat Dutch’: late-maturing, large flattened, mid-green head to 6kg, stores well
- Cabbage ‘Red Acre’: early maturing, reddish, compact head to 1.6kg
- Cabbage ‘Verona Purple’: late-maturing, savoy-style, round head to 4kg, purple colour enhanced in cold weather
- Cabbage ‘Vertus Savoy’: late maturing, large, round head, savoy-style cabbage to 4kg
Links above are to the PSW 2023 catalogue, where you can find information about, and photos of, the varieties available (no photo of ‘Red Acre’).
The catalogue is now open for mail order and “click and collect” sales. Please note that mail orders incur a $5 postage and handling fee; “click and collect” orders incur a $2 handling fee.
Seeds for all seasons are available while in stock.
Please note: seeds are for sale to PSW and PSN members only.
Until next month
Lynne (PSW Seed Savers Team Coordinator and Custodian of the Seed Bank)
This article is for gardening information and general interest only. Being neither a herbalist nor a qualified medical practitioner, I cannot give any medical advice on the use of any plant, internally or externally. Readers of this article must do their own research before using cabbages for any purpose other than as a garden plant.