Salute to Ole King Cole

Betty Jakum
Adams County Master Gardener

What this country needs is a good old-fashioned cabbage festival! Googling the Internet showed no such celebration in honor of this familiar member of the Cole family closer than the Dithmarschen area in North Germany. Every autumn, while the rest of Germany is Oktoberfesting, the people of this region host the biggest cabbage festival in the country. Eighty million cabbages are harvested amid songs of praise, the crowning of a cabbage queen and the construction of a cabbage mountain piled so high a crane is needed to add the final heads to the top.

Now these sound like folks who truly appreciate the virtues of the humble cabbage, an appreciation that seems to be dwindling on this side of the Atlantic. But it doesn't have to be so. Cabbage is more than just cole slaw, sauerkraut and half the traditional meal on St. Patrick's Day.

The cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is one of the oldest vegetables grown and belongs to a large extended family that includes Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, cauliflower and collards. Grown in both the Western and Eastern worlds (the Chinese vegetable, Bok Choy, is one of the most nutritious of cabbages) it has been around for about 4,000 years. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, it was prized both for eating and as medicine. Much later, it was cultivated by peasants throughout Europe and the British Isles who quickly came to appreciate its abundance and economy. Many of these peasants sustained themselves on soup made from pickled cabbage and loaves of hearty rye bread for centuries.


Cabbages still deserve a place in every gardener's vegetable patch. They are easy to grow as long as suitable varieties are selected and proper culture and insect management are maintained. Cabbages likes cool growing conditions, so plant as early in the spring as the soil can be worked. Most gardeners buy transplants, but some start their own seed indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before plants can safely go outside. The end of March is my ideal time to have cabbage plants in the garden.

Space plants 12 to 24 inches apart, depending on the variety and size of head desired. As there are hundreds of cabbage varieties, varying in color, shape and size, make sure you know the requirements of the cabbage type you have selected. Use a starter fertilizer when transplanting. Suppliers designate how much Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K) their packaged fertilizers contain. Look for one with the Phosphorus number higher than the other two. Phosphorus is essential for root development, and this is what newly-planted cabbage plants need most at this time. Because cabbages are heavy feeders, side dress with nitrogen fertilizer when the plants are half grown. Cultivate shallowly to keep down weeds and keep plants mulched. Provide ample moisture throughout the growing season.

Harvest cabbages anytime after the heads form. For highest yield, cut the heads when they are solid (firm to hand pressure) but before they crack or split, at about 3 to 4 months. Use a sharp knife to cut the heads off at the base of the plants, keeping a few outer leaves to protect the heads. Remove and destroy or compost the remaining stumps in a timely manner because they can serve as breeding ground for diseases and insects.

Some cabbage diseases are Black rot, Blackleg and Yellows or fusarium wilt. To minimize plant disease, practice crop rotation by waiting 3 years before replanting cabbage in the same location to prevent soil-spreading disease, choose resistant varieties, and buy disease-free seeds and plants from reputable sources. The most bothersome cabbage pests I encounter are the larvae of the cabbage butterflies that munch the tender leaves of my young cabbage plants. Sometimes early on, flea beetles are a problem. To control pests, keep the garden free of weeds, treat using the biological control BT (Bacillus thuringienses) or dust with a general insecticide.


The nutritional value of the venerable cabbage has long been understood. In 18th century seafaring days, cabbage was loaded onto ships to provide the nutrition sailors needed on their long voyages. As noted earlier, peasants in Europe survived for centuries on cabbage soup. Today, science provides proof of just how healthful cabbage really is. Half a cup of cooked cabbage has 16 calories and 2.9 grams of dietary fiber with only 3.6 mg of carbohydrates. It is also a good source of beta-carotene, folate, iron, calcium, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin K, which plays an important role in bone health. Some studies suggest cabbage contains natural chemical compounds that may be helpful in the prevention of certain types of cancer.

Cabbage is like a good friend. It warms us in the chill of winter in steaming soups and savory baked dishes. As cole slaw, it's an old standby at many summer picnics. And what would a hot dog be without lots of golden sauerkraut piled high on top of it. We should all get to know this good friend better.

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