When is a ruby not a ruby? When it's a ruby-red cabbage. This jewel of a vegetable with its rosette of bluish-red leaves has great visual appeal - both in the kitchen and the garden.
Cabbage was originally introduced to Europe by the Romans, who valued it highly for its outstanding health properties - and for its taste. In fact, the Ancient Romans held cabbage in such high esteem that, Columella, waxed poetic about it:
'To low plebian and the haughty king,
In winter Cabbage, and green Sprouts in spring.'
But let's face it. Despite the fact it was highly touted by Romans and Europeans, here in North America we tend to regard cabbage as plain fare - or worse - inedible. Just how did cabbage get such a bad rap? It's all in the cooking.
We shudder at the thought of limp, over-cooked cabbage. However, properly cooked, red cabbage is delicious. Steam slices until they're tender crisp in a small amount of liquid; add a little smoked ham - a mouth-watering dish! Eaten in its raw state, red cabbage makes a crisp, beautiful slaw, either alone or combined with green cabbage. Cooked with apples, sugar, vinegar, onions, and spices - a delectable rote kohl fit for a king! So if watery, over-cooked cabbage makes you see red - blame the cook, not the cabbage.
Like other Brassicas, red cabbage is a heavy feeder, and requires fertile soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.5.
For early spring cabbages, start seeds indoors at the beginning of March. Seeds should be planted ¼" to ½" deep in individual containers. Expect seeds to germinate in 7-10 days. Within three to four weeks the seedlings should be sturdy enough to harden off, then transplanted into the garden. Spring cabbage has loosely-packed leaves and takes less time to mature than the denser, fall varieties.
Space plants approximately 15-18 inches apart in a rich, well-drained soil. Tamp the soil firmly around the plants (cabbage does best in a firm soil), and give them a good drink of water. Feed with a high nitrogen , and add side dressings of or aged manure to the soil to help promote rapid growth. If your soil is acidic, sprinkle in lime or wood ashes to neutralize the soil, and defend against clubroot.
Cultivate with care, as cabbage has shallow roots. An organic mulch will keep weed competition down, help retain moisture, and keep the soil cool - cool temperature allows the cabbage time to mature properly instead of bolting. The down side of using mulch is that it makes an ideal home for the ubiquitous slug.
If your area suffers from hot, dry summers, plant spring varieties that mature in 53 - 88 days. Fall varieties may take from 100 -140 days until they are fully mature.
Garden space limited? No problem! Red cabbages are pretty enough to sneak into the flower border. Plant a few of these beauties at random with your perennials and dazzle your neighbours with your savoir faire. The deep burgundy color of the cabbage makes an attractive accent plant, and it just might confuse the cabbage butterfly into believing this is just another flower.
Because fall cabbages require a long growing season, they'll benefit from extra nitrogen added to the soil, such as blood meal. The dense heads of the late cabbage require cool, moist conditions. Sow in a cold frame in June, and then transplant them into the garden in August, spacing the plants 2' apart. Hot, dry weather may cause the heads to form too quickly, or to split.
To deter a whole range of insects that have an affinity for cabbages, practice good garden hygiene and rotate your crops. Cover the plants with lightweight garden fabric that is available in most garden centres. Another organic method is to cut a nylon stocking in half, and place it over the cabbage head. The nylon stretches as the cabbage grows, thereby protecting it from invasive pests. Planting quick-maturing varieties will keep some insects at bay, and will also open up the space for another vegetable.
As a cautionary note - don't garden in soil that was recently a grassed area as it may contain a high percentage of cutworms that will mow your plants down in record time - a very discouraging sight first thing in the morning - or at anytime.
The red pigment in some vegetables, like red cabbage, discourages insects - a definite plus!
Cabbage is highly regarded by herbalists for its healing properties - naturopaths have used it to treat stomach ulcers, boost immunity, cleanse the blood, and for digestive problems. It contains Vitamins A, B, and C, Potassium, Phosphorus, and Calcium - all this and still only 24 calories a serving. Can't beat that!
Red cabbage stores particularly well, and will keep for up to three weeks in your refrigerator. Harvest spring cabbages as soon as they begin to fill out. Fall cabbages should be harvested when the heads are firm and filled out. These can remain in the garden until needed, as they won't be damaged by a light frost.
Lewis Carroll said it all in his poem, The Walrus and the Carpenter:
"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing-wax --
red cabbage fit for kings --." I rest my case.
Recipe: Pickled Red Cabbage