Cabbage’s place in our garden rotation is the same as broccoli, as its shares the same fertility nee, and suffers from similar disease and insect problems. And as with both broccoli and Brussels sprouts, young cabbages take up only a fraction of the space they’ll need at maturity; a quick “catch crop” of some other type can be grown in that extra space until it is needed. Spinach, lettuce, and other fast-growing greens make good candidates.
Cabbage itself should be grown quickly, and without checks, if it is to be as tender and tasty as possible, so if you will be inter-planting make sure that the bed is sufficiently fertile and well watered (yet well drained) enough to support the growth of all the nutrient-greedy plants you put in it. To avoid problems with splitting and tipburn (discussed below), the nutrients should be easily available at the early stages of growth, and less so as the heads mature. A bed that has had manure applied the previous fall, at a rate of two to three bushels per hundred square feet, and then been turned under and planted to a cover crop, is ideal.
If you wish to harvest over the longest period, either plant a varietal succession of different types in midspring, and again in late summer, or plant every two to three weeks, using a quick-growing fresh-use cultivar harvested promptly as each planting matures in temporal succession.
Cabbages can either be grown from transplant or direct-seeded where they are to grow. Sow seed in flats or plugs six to eight weeks before the last frost and set out after the danger of hard frost.
Different types of cabbage require different spacings. Early cultivars, including virtually all the pointed types, can be set as close as eight to twelve inches apart. Most ball-headed cabbages need twelve to eighteen inches apiece, depending on what size head you want. Except for a few of the newer hybrids, savoy and storage cultivars will need eighteen to twenty-four inches apiece to develop mature heads. If you want to grow really large heads, space the plants twenty-four to thirty-six inches apart.
In each case, rows should be thirty to thirty-six inches apart to allow a path between the plants at maturity; you can also plant double rows with a path between each pair, or, as we do, set the plants equidistant in semi-permanent beds.
To get the best taste and storage qualities in your cabbages it helps to pay attention to how the plant responds to the changing seasons in your garden. Spring-set plants should be set out before they reach the six- to eight-leaf stage (when the stem is about the diameter of a pencil), unless the weather is fully settled. If they have to endure more than a few days of temperatures below 50F/10C (after they have reached that size), there is a significant risk that they will run to seed without forming a head.
Fall crops planted for storage or sauerkraut should not be planted more than about ten to twelve weeks before the first fall frost. The tang of good homemade sauerkraut is directly related to the level of sugars stored in the leaves of a cabbage head; it takes time, plus a period of cool weather—even a bit of frost at maturity—to get a good supply of these sugars. Cabbages for storage need to harden-off and slow down their growth before harvest, and the change to lower temperatures and light levels that accompanies the approach of fall is essential.
Two major problems that afflict cabbage are tipburn and splitting. Both can be prevented by a combination of good practices and proper choice of cultivars. Both are different expressions of the same error of care: erratic watering. Tipburn happens when the growing tip of the plant (in cabbage, the leaves) can’t get enough calcium for new cell formation and so the tip dies back, leaving a brown edge. The plant needs sufficient water to transport the calcium so even if it is present in the soil the problem can arise. Splitting occurs because the plant has gone through a dry period, during which its outer tissues hardened up, and then, if there is suddenly abundant water again, the plant tries to expand but can’t, and so splits. Both of these disorders can be avoided by consistent watering.
Cabbage harvest couldn’t be simpler. Cut the head as far up the stem as you can without losing too many leaves. Given time, a second crop of mini-cabbages will form at the base of the plant, just below the cut. If you’d like a single larger head for your second harvest, remove all but one of the sprouts. We often pull the plants after harvest to make room for another crop, but you could simply plant the other crop in the open space around the sprouting stalk.