By Charles Marr
Kansas State University
When we begin to think about early crops we can plant in the garden, there aren't too many things that are more cold resistant than cabbage.
Cabbage is a very old vegetable crop--known to be cultivated for at least 4,000 years. The name, "cabbage," is thought to be derived from a Latin word, "caput," meaning head, or from a French word, "caboche," also meaning head.
There appears to be evidence in history that there were two types of cabbage--hard-headed as well as soft-headed. Nearly everything that we are familiar with now are of the hard-headed types; however, there must have been some earlier cabbages that formed a loose head--something like bibb or leaf lettuce. There is a lot of early evidence that in Greek and Roman times cabbage was thought to have medicinal value--curing everything from stomach ailments to baldness and also evidence that cabbage often was eaten before a big "night on the town," especially when a lot of wine was to be served.
Cabbage can be planted very early in the High Plains area, since a well-grown cabbage plant can suffer temperatures down into the mid to low 20s without injury. The key is to expose the plant to some cold before setting it out. If you purchase plants from a nursery or garden center, it might be a good idea to hold the plants in a cool location outside before planting them to allow the plants to toughen and harden.
Cabbage likes a lot of fertilizer to produce a large plant, and a large head later on. When the plant begins to grow actively, make sure to fertilize it well with some rapidly available-soluble fertilizer used with water to keep the plant growing. This early fertilization will provide big rewards, literally, later on. Cabbage also benefits from an area that has been well fertilized with organic matter in the fall or early spring.
Early varieties of cabbage produce a plant quickly and head rapidly, but the heads often are soft and not very heavy. Later varieties will produce a much larger, firmer head. However, very late varieties often don't head until our hot summer gets here and cabbage takes on a bitter or strong flavor. The key is to select mid-season varieties to get the best of both worlds.
There are some excellent red varieties of cabbage now available to make some attractive additions to cole slaw or raw cabbage dishes. Another type of cabbage that has gotten some attention in the last several years is "savoy" cabbage, which has a crinkle in the leaf. Sovoy cabbage usually is considered milder in flavor and makes a very tender, mild cole slaw or salad.
Incidentally, we often call the cabbage family cole crops, which also is derived from a German word, "kohl," which means cabbage. We often think of eating cabbage raw as a salad vegetable; however, there are some excellent uses of cabbage in a lightly cooked, steamed or "panfried" form. This lightly cooked cabbage retains much of its nutrient value and can be flavored with a wide range of meats and spices.
So, it is about time to plant early vegetables in your High Plains garden. Remember, one of the earliest things you can plant is cabbage. When the potatoes go in the ground, plant some cabbage at the same time. It should be able to take our cold spring weather quite well.