Michael van Straten
Michael van Straten

Michael's Kitchen Garden - Cabbage

Throughout Europe cabbage has been known as the medicine of the poor since the Middle Ages. Our neighbours have endless ways of eating this amazing member of the Cruciferae family in all its varieties. Together they form the Brassica group of plants which include everything from cabbages to broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflowers, kale, spring greens, kohlrabi, as well as all the oriental varieties like Chinese cabbage and pak choi. Cabbage is a source of essential nutrients in every season of the year and also has extraordinary healing and health-promoting properties.

The dark green leaves contain iron and lots of vitamin C which help the absorption of this essential mineral. It`s also an excellent source of folic acid which helps prevent birth defects and contains lots of betacarotene, important for the eyes, skin and natural resistance. Cabbage is also a cancer preventer and in populations where large amounts are eaten there is a lower incidence of cancers, especially of the lung, colon, breast and uterus. If like me you`re a lover of sauerkraut you`ll be happy to know that it contains billions of the protective friendly bacteria and a group of cancer fighting chemicals.

You can even use it externally, as a warm bruised leaf wrapped round an inflamed joint relieves the pain and used as a lining inside the bra it reduces the pain, inflammation and swelling of mastitis.

If you grow cabbages they probably take up more room in your garden than most of the other produce. Some of the dense white and red cabbages can be stored over winter, but mostly they`re eaten fresh when they`re at their most tasty and nutritious. Cabbage is one vegetable which you cannot grow in the same place year after year because disease is more likely to develop and it must be part of your normal crop rotation. All the Brassicas need plenty of lime in the soil with a pH around 7 to avoid the most common pests and problems. Because they`re all very top-heavy plants they need firm soil which has been enriched with plenty of organic material at least three months before planting.

Established plants are readily available but it is cheaper and you get a much wider choice of varieties by growing from seed. To harvest throughout the winter, sow in the late spring and plant out in mid-summer. Great varieties are January King, Savoy King and Red Drumhead. For spring cabbage plant the seed late summer in the south of England, late spring to early summer in the north, and plant out early in the autumn. If you can find the seed (try one of the Heritage collections or the Soil Association), Wheeler`s Imperial is a great old variety. It`s quite small so withstands the winter winds and has a tight pointed head which protects the heart from all but the severest of frosts. Durham Early and Spring Hero are good alternatives. For summer cabbage to harvest right through till early autumn, plant late winter or early spring depending on whether you`re in the north or south. You`ll need a heated propagator to germinate the seed and make sure you harden off the plants before putting them out in the garden mid to late spring. Derby Day, Summer Monarch and Spitfire are some of the best. Finally, for autumn cabbage sow mid to late spring, plant in-situ early summer, using summer cabbage varieties. These will keep you going till the winter cabbages are ready.

Of all the Brassicas kale is one of the hardiest and happily it seems to be making a come-back thanks to some of the fashionable chefs. Sow the seeds in May and plant them out where they`re going to grow in July. These can be large plants and need very firm planting to withstand the winter winds. Kale is best picked from the top which encourages more side shoots and more leaves. Curly Kale (Scotch Kale) is one of the best and is wonderful shredded and mixed with mashed potato. I`ve grown an Italian variety which one of my patients brought from her home in Tuscany. It`s called Cavolo nero and it produces wonderful clumps of green-black crinkly leaves. This, like many kales, is a perennial and can be left where it is so that by the second or third year of growth it`s really prolific and enormous.


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