They often seem dull, fairly tasteless, reek when cooked and occupy too much space in the garden. Yet they have been around for millennia and can handle whatever the Scottish weather throws at them. This year, when tatties succumbed to blight and peas cropped poorly, cabbages held their own.
The vegetable has become distinctly unglamorous because cooks have often treated it so unimaginatively. Generations of schoolchildren encountered cabbages in the school canteen, where it had been boiled to death and smelled disgusting. The wonderful, clean, almost nutty flavour of raw cabbage was lost. As coleslaw or gently sauteed or stir-fried, it's one of the noblest of vegetables.
Over time, different varieties have been bred to crop throughout the year. Spring cabbages are one of our earliest greens; summer cabbages make a change from crunchy lettuce; autumn drumheads follow on seamlessly; and savoys are the backbone of the winter kitchen garden. So, if you'd like to start growing cabbages, be sure to choose a variety that will be ready to harvest at the time you want.
Suppliers state clearly when to sow and harvest each variety. Spring cabbages, such as Durham Early, sown in late June and early July, won't be ready before the following May. You'll already have enjoyed summer varieties, like the fast-maturing Surprise, and the trick now is ensuring you use the autumn and winter varieties – which will have been growing much more slowly – when they're at their best.
As a general rule, drumhead varieties, like the unbeatable Kilaton F1, have small, tight heads and are ready to cut from now until Christmas. They stand into the new year then, in my opinion, start to lose their freshness. If you see the top leaves beginning to crack in one or two cabbages, try to use the rest of the crop as quickly as possible.
The larger, late-winter cabbages and savoys take longer to fully mature and stand up to January's snow and ice. Tundra fits the bill. With slightly crinkly leaves, it can be eaten cooked or raw. Siberia, on the other hand, has very crinkly leaves and needs to be lightly cooked. Red cabbages add a bit of colour and even sit nicely in a potager. The autumn red drumhead, Ruby Perfection, is new to the catalogues, but reds have been around in Germany since at least 1150.
The biggest threat to cabbages is slugs, your only hope being to kill them early, while they are still mobile in the soil. Nemasys, the biological control, works as long as the soil temperature is above 5C. Otherwise, beer-filled slug traps greatly reduce populations. Forget egg shells or grit – slugs will easily slither over them. And the product Slug Gone, made from sheep wool, is only effective for a short while. Trap the critters during a mild spell when they may also leave the cabbages.
By practising good garden hygiene – keeping beds clean and free of decaying vegetation – you protect your cabbages against fungal attack, removing shelters and breeding havens for moulds and rots.
Finally, you have to decide whether or not to lift and store cabbages. Writing in 1754, Scottish gardener James Justice suggested you: "either house them, or laying the Ground up in Ridges, pull them up by the Roots, and lay them sloping upon their Sides, covering the Stems with the Ridge of Earth up to their undermost Leaves, which will preserve them in good Condition up until February by laying some Straw above them." Pointing the cabbage head downwards will certainly prevent water, and consequently rot, from getting in, but slugs and hungry voles love sheltering in straw.
Late-winter cabbages survive all but the harshest winters so there is no need to store them. Large-leafed vegetables such as cabbage quickly lose flavour and vitamins after harvesting, so, if weather permits, cut the head at the last possible moment. n