My favorite winter veggie: cabbage

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Cabbage gets no respect.  Kale is trendy and collards are so very Southern, but their cousin the cabbage is overlooked often in this country, except for the occasional uneaten side of coleslaw.  In 2011 the United States produced 959,750 metric tons of cabbage and brassicas (which would include kale, collards, broccoli and cauliflower).  China?  31,750,000 tons, much of which is what we call Chinese cabbage or Bok Choy.  Cabbage is much more popular in other countries than it is here, partly because cabbage yields more edible product than any other vegetable per acre and matures in as little as 3 months.

That’s not why I like it, though.  It is originally an Asian vegetable that made it’s way to the United States via northern Europe, and that means it’s a cold weather vegetable in subtropical climates like the South — perfect for winter growing.  It’s not quite as cold hardy as collards or kale, but only by a whisker.  Unlike collards and kale, however, cabbage stores exceptionally well for a green vegetable.  With the proper selection of storage varieties (heading types with low moisture content), cabbage will store up to 6 months at 32F and 90% humidity.  A home refrigerator is ideally set at 37F and is less humid, but still cabbage will store for a couple of months under those conditions.  Which means I can leave cabbage in the garden and harvest when I want it, add some protection if the temperature will drop below 22F or so, and if truly cold weather threatens I can bring it indoors into the fridge and store until spring greens are ready.

And as far as I am concerned, cabbage tastes better and is more flexible when preparing meals, from raw to sauerkraut to roasted.  Kale lovers will no doubt disagree.

Left unchecked, cabbage worms will shred your young cabbage in the fall.  They can be controlled with Bt without causing collateral damage to beneficial insects.  I use Dipel DF, which keeps well for many years if kept dry and unmixed, and I add a surfactant so the spray doesn’t just run off cabbage’s waxy leaves.  Reapply after every rain or about every 1-2 weeks to protect new growth.  You can also try hand picking, but I find the worms get down into the crevices and are very difficult to find.

Store-bought cabbage is cheap, this week at $0.52/pound conventional and $1.29/pound for organic, so your financial payoff with cabbage will not be a large one. Those in colder regions that must compete for space in the summer garden will probably not find it worthwhile.  However, with the ease of growing and with the available space in the winter season, cabbage probably deserves a place in the winter gardens for those of us in warmer climates.  Hardy crops like cabbage allow us to have fresh vegetables when much of the country must rely on what they’ve preserved.

(By Nicole Castle)

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