Most of the vegetables we choose to grow on our allotment and in the garden is the stuff that requires very little effort. The root veg, squashes and beans that get on with the job of growing and need a minimum of extra help from us, other than watering, feeding and weeding. But occasionally we have a patch to fill and take a punt on something that requires a little more effort, such as cabbages. Read on for our handy guide to growing cabbages.
This member of the brassica family isn’t overly challenging to grow, but it’s a little fussier than other vegetables and prone to more pests. Cabbage is divided into groups according to the time of harvest: spring, summer or winter. Although the methods used are the same for all three groups, sowing times will also be different, with spring cabbages sown in July or August, summer in late February or March (they’ll need some protective cover when sown) and winter cabbages in April and May.
You can sow cabbage seeds in situ but most people tend to start them off in modules, transplanting them into the ground when they’re big enough to handle, usually around three months after sowing and with five true leaves. We find module sowing allows us to keep a closer eye on them (away from pests) and means we can pick only the finest specimens to plant out. Germination is generally reliable and, providing you keep them well watered and away from slugs, snails and pigeons, you should have a decent crop to select from.
The growing site you choose for cabbages should be sunny and well manured, ideally a few months in advance to allow the soil to settle. Before planting cabbages make sure the soil is firm – stomping around in heavy boots usually does the trick – then pop into holes so their base leaves sit just above the surface and water well. Check the final size of your cabbages on the seed packet and space accordingly (and don’t be tempted to squeeze a few more into each row).
From here on in it should be straightforward, providing you water thoroughly during dry spells, but the chances are you’ll be in competition for them with any number of pests, as follows:
Slugs and snails
These tend to go after young cabbage seedlings or newly transplanted cabbages. We’ve found that most slug deterrents don’t work and prefer not to use slug pellets, so we are vigilant in removing any slippery characters we see (an evening job). You can also make sure there’s no clutter nearby where they lodge, making their feeding trips swift and easy. Also keep spare cabbage plants in your modules in case you need to plug any slug gaps.
Brassicas are a favourite of pigeons, and they can rapidly peck away huge chunks of leaves in no time. Netting is your best bet, although it needs to be put up in a secure and sensible way to prevent wildlife getting trapped – if you think you’re going to be a brassica growing regular then it’s worth building a sturdy cage for repeat use. You could also try a pigeon scaring device. We’ve found that tying strips torn from white plastic bags to string suspended over the rows is quite effective.
The cabbage white butterfly is the main culprit here. Netting will help prevent them laying their eggs on your leaves, thus keeping the caterpillars at bay. But you can also just keep an eye on how much damage the caterpillars are causing. It may be that the cabbages can survive a few holey leaves here and there but if it becomes too destructive then move the caterpillars – they’re easy to spot and don’t put up much of a fight.
We don’t want to frighten you off growing cabbages by giving a huge long list of potential problems, but if your cabbages fail then it could be down to cabbage root fly or club root. The former is less likely if you keep your cabbage seedlings well protected; the latter can be avoided by making sure you have good, healthy, rich soil and water the cabbage plants well.
Three Cabbage Varieties to Try
Stands up well to winter and produces firm, round cabbage heads
Its pointy leaves are sweet and tasty, making them very versatile in the kitchen
The classic wrinkly-leaved cabbage that is a must for roast dinners
What are the best cabbage varieties that you have tried growing? Let us know in the comments.