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Vegetable Growing : Spring Cabbage

Site and soil | Varieties | Sowing | Transplanting | Aftercare | Cutting | Pests and Diseases

Spring cabbage is not as popular as it once was in a time when vegetables were not flown around the world to reach supermarket shelves. It held a special place because it offered the first spring greens after a winter of root vegetables. And it is still hard to beat the earthy fresh flavour of cabbage cut from the garden in late March or April.

Site and soil

Traditionally, spring cabbage was planted into ground where early potatoes have been ground and only recently dug out. There were two reasons for this practice. First of all, the space was available and secondly, the good condition of the soil after early potatoes. Because early potatoes need the ground to be warm and fairly light to get off to an early start, the same suits spring cabbage which has to go through the rigours of winter.

The potato root would open the soil and if some organic material had been added for the potatoes, as would have been the case traditionally, this would encourage quick rooting in autumn. This traditional way of using the potato ground is a good guide to what the spring cabbage needs - soil not too heavy or wet, which will be cold and delay growth, soil that has some organic material, is nice and open, fertile, drains well and in a sunny, sheltered location to maximise on the available sunlight.

Varieties

The varieties of spring cabbage traditionally used included: ‘April', ‘Offenham', ‘Flower of Spring' and ‘First Early Market'. Different seed houses offered variations of these and there was some cross-over of names, and perhaps mixed seed races. But ‘April' and versions of ‘Offenham' are still available. Other varieties that can be used include ‘Pixie' with small hearted heads; ‘Duncan' which can be grown year-round and sown from February to September; ‘Excel' can be sown from January to July to give pointed small heads. ‘Advantage' can be treated in similar fashion but it is larger.

Almost all varieties of spring cabbage have pointed heads, because these varieties are looser and heart up earlier, but ‘Spring Hero' is a round-headed variety that can also be used in summer. The old varieties are selected strains and not F1 hybrids, the resulting plants of which are all alike and have a tendency to be ready all at once. The older varieties exhibit more variation about hearting up. But spring cabbage can be used from the leaf stage to the well-hearted stage, from late March if you are lucky and often well into June.

Sowing

Traditionally, spring cabbage seeds were sown in the last week of July or the first week of August, the later date in the warmer parts of the country, the earlier in the colder districts. The idea was to have plants ready for planting out in September or early October. The seeds could be sown later but the chances of having plants of good size going into winter was reduced and the crop would not be so early, but later sown seedlings would give a later crop in spring and early summer.

The seeds of spring cabbage are sown directly in the open soil on a seed bed or in a short row into finely tilled and raked soil. Within a few days of emerging, the seedlings can be thinned to a spacing of 5cm apart. This will allow much better development of the plants and each plant can be used, but be careful that a snail does not get at the tiny seedlings. If the weather is dry in August after sowing, the seedlings should be watered about once a week.

Transplanting

When the ground has had some September rain, it can be cleared off, but not dug over, if it was potato ground. The ground will have settled somewhat and this is ideal because cabbage likes open, but firm soil. If the soil must be dug over, it can be firmed by treading lightly before planting. If the ground is reasonably fertile it needs no fertiliser added at this stage. Before lifting, water the young plants well a few hours before, or the day before. Use a fork to loosen the soil and lift out the plants.

Mark out rows about 45cm apart and plant the cabbage plants about 30cm apart in the rows. The row spacing can be closer, especially if the preference is to grow ‘spring greens'. It is possible to use a 30cm spacing and remove the centre row as spring greens to allow the others more space to heart up in late spring. Plant deeply enough to have the lowest leaf bases just above soil level, not any higher as it causes wind-rocking, or deeper as the plant may rot in winter. Firm lightly on planting and water immediately.

Many garden centres sell spring cabbage plants in September and October. These are often sold in pots or cell trays, but loose plants in newspaper bundles - the traditional way - are also offered sometimes. These plants must be planted as soon as possible and make sure they are not yellowed or rotten in the centre of the bunch - this happens when the plants have been lifted too long ago, which can be just a few days in a warm spell. Stale plants will produce very bad results.

Aftercare

Water a week or so after planting if rainfall has been light. Hoe among the plants as soon as seedling weeds appear which will be within ten days or so. Disturb the soil as little as possible when hoeing. Watch for pigeon damage to the young plants, even soon after planting and certainly later in winter. They often do not attack until late winter. The plants may need to be covered with netting or horticultural fleece, which will also help to bring on the plants a bit earlier. If the plants get loose in the soil due to wind-rocking, place a little soil near them and firm them in.

In the first mild spell after the middle of January, apply some liquid feed to the soil around the plant to boost growth. Any liquid feed would do or the diluted run-off from a compost bin would be ideal. Traditionally, a shake of sulphate of ammonia was applied and before that again, diluted urine was used to boost early growth. Liquid feeding could be repeated each two weeks but the sulphate of ammonia need only be applied once. While some feeding will green up the plants and bring them on much earlier, too much will make the plants too green and rather strongly flavoured and bitter, not the sweet earthy taste of spring cabbage.

Cutting

Spring cabbage can be cut as soon as the plants have reached a reasonable size, usually in late March or early April. Some plants can be cut early as spring greens and the remaining plants will heart up later. The earliest cut stems can be left in place and they will sprout, producing some small loose heads later.

Pests and diseases

Spring cabbage can suffer from a range of pests and diseases. The main problems likely to arise are from pigeons and the cabbage mealy aphid, a greenfly which can arrive in autumn and cause a lot of distortion and contamination by harvest time. Usually, there is no problem with caterpillars or cabbage root flies as it is too late in the year. Cabbage white blister disease can occur from an autumn infection but usually only if the disease is present on other crops and leaf spot disease can also transfer from other cabbage family crops, but both of these are unusual.

 

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