One last fling for vegetables

Cabbages appreciate autumn's cool weather

In The Garden

August 25, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Nothing beats clomping out to the garden in a November drizzle to cut a fresh cabbage for homemade vegetable soup. It's only possible, of course, if the clomping, knife-wielding gardener planted cabbage for late-autumn harvest -- and vegetable transplants and seeds for cool weather vegetables were as scarce as hen's teeth until recently.

But garden centers, which battle summer heat and drought along with the rest of us, now stock cool weather seedlings and seeds to give disappointed gardeners another shot at a decent harvest.

Although there are several good fall vegetable possibilities, one of the best and easiest to grow is cabbage, especially the tightly-packed heading types (the green or red commonly used in cole slaw).

"These cabbages can get hit with frost in the 20s a number of times and be fine," observes Steve Bellavia, vegetable product manager at Johnny's Selected Seeds in Albion, Maine.

We can often harvest fresh heading cabbage in Maryland right up to Christmas. "Frost sweetens up cabbage," says Jon Traunfeld, vegetable specialist at the Maryland Cooperative Extension, University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center.

Like heading cabbages, the nonheading loose-leaf varieties (Chinese cabbage, bok choi, celery cabbage) grow better in autumn than in summer, when they tend to bolt (go to seed). But they are more frost-tender than heading types.

"You have to be cautious with Chinese cabbage, since it doesn't take the cold weather," says Mark Willis, vegetable product manager at Harris Seeds in Rochester, N.Y., "though you can protect them somewhat with row cover, which comes in different densities. Lighter row cover is good for frost protection, and a heavier density cover is better for freeze protection."

Varieties

Cabbage, which came to the New World in 1541, is packed with vitamins like the scurvy-preventative vitamin C. It belongs to the mustard family (Cruciferae) in the genus Brassica, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and others. Although virtually all Brassicas prefer cool weather, the shorter-season fast-growing varieties are best for fall planting.

" 'Gonzales' is a small green heading cabbage that grows fairly quickly and is good for the home gardener for fall," says Bellavia. "Another is 'Arrowhead,' a neat-looking pointed-head variety."

'Early Jersey Wakefield,' 'Danish Ballhead' and crinkly-leafed savoy are other good fall candidates. Yet even with the shorter-season heading varieties, it's better to put in seedlings than to plant seeds at this time of year, since they take about 67 days to grow to full size (though you can use them sooner). But leaf varieties, which reach full size in about 53 days (and can be used earlier in salads and stir-fries), can be direct-seeded into the garden right now. Ornamental cabbage, which is actually kale (Brassica oleracea), is not ordinarily used for cooking.

Cultivation

"With cabbages, the tricky thing is location," says Traunfeld. "If the sun is too hot, they can burn up." Floating row cover (the gardener's multipurpose friend) can protect against sun scorch. It also helps to keep moisture in and insects out.

Since cabbage, like many annual vegetables, are heavy feeders, Traunfeld recommends digging in organic fertilizer before planting and then fertilizing with an organic food two or three times during growth.

Once fertilized, the main thing is to keep cabbages watered, especially in the first couple of weeks.

"If you're restricted in water use, use gray water [from the dishwasher, washing machine, bath, etc.]," advises Traunfeld. "Water around the roots, but keep it off the plants."

Sources

Johnny's Selected Seeds

184 Foss Hill Road

Albion, Maine 04910-9731

207-437-4301

www.johnnyseeds.com

Harris Seeds

355 Paul Road

P.O. Box 24966

Rochester, NY 14624-0966

800-544-7938

www.harrisseeds.com

Behnke Nurseries

11300 Baltimore Ave.

Beltsville, MD 20705

301-937-1100

www.behnke.com

(Other locations in Potomac and Largo)

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