The Best Heirloom Cabbage Varieties

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Savoy cabbage

In my early years of growing cabbage, I believed that the best cabbage varieties for my garden were fast-growing, disease-resistant hybrids. We all make mistakes, because although my fresh, organic cabbage was quite good, the flavor and texture varied little from cabbage I could buy at the store.

Everything changed when I switched to heirloom (or heritage) cabbage varieties, some of which are so tender that they border on being buttery, with mellow spicy flavours that vary with the seasons. And they are all so different! First I tried sweet little ‘Early Copenhagen Market’, then space-saving ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ and incredibly tasty ‘Golden Acre’. In every case there was a fascinating quality difference, which is one of the main reasons why we garden, isn’t it?

Before moving on, here is an anonymous nugget I ran across while reading reviews of heirloom cabbage varieties: “I admit that I was silly enough to think of cabbage as a relatively bland plant that probably wouldn't taste much different when plucked from my garden than it did when bought from the grocery store. WOW, is there a difference!”

Pointed cabbage

Choosing Heirloom Cabbage Varieties

In his book Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, writer and food historian William Woys Weaver devotes a lively chapter to cabbage, which he sorts into three groups: cabbage varieties with elongated or pointed heads (originally from the UK and Germany), round Copenhagen types from Denmark, and big Dutch drumheads.

  • The elongated to pointed ‘Wakefield’ cabbage varieties were first selected in the Yorkshire region, and much further refined in America in ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ (1868) and more heat-tolerant ‘Charleston Wakefield’ (1892). In the UK, ‘Early Durham’, ‘April’ and other varieties planted in autumn as spring cabbage fall into this group, too. All are edible at a young age, long before they form actual heads, but the best thing about these cabbage varieties is the way the upright heads shed rain, thus keeping their health in drenching weather.
  • Mostly round in shape and unbelievably tender, ‘Early Copenhagen Market’ and ‘Golden Acre’ are the butterheads of the cabbage world, unsurpassed for raw salads or lightly braised summer dishes. These cabbage varieties are great fits for small gardens, because they grow well with close spacing.
  • Majestic drumhead cabbage varieties are fun to grow from early summer to fall, so they mature around the time of the first fall frosts. ‘Late Flat Dutch’ is most common variety, but German-bred ‘Brunswick’ and frilly ‘Perfection Drumhead Savoy’ are garden show-stoppers as well. The spreading plants require plenty of space, but how many ten-pound (4.5kg) cabbages do you really need? These are wonderful cabbage varieties for making into sauerkraut.
Red drumhead cabbage

Tips for Growing Cabbage

“Need I remind my readers that with cabbages, soil is everything, and fertility is all the rest? Good cabbage land must be well manured,” writes Weaver, and of course he is right. Cabbage plants produce new leaves continuously, so they require a constant and balanced supply of nutrients. My personal method is to enrich roomy planting holes with two spadefuls of homemade compost mixed with a cup or so of an organic fertiliser made from poultry manure (poultry pellets would do as well).

Soil that is regularly enriched with compost is supposed to provide sufficient amounts of boron, but I have seen slow-growing cabbage plants perk up overnight when showered with a little household borax (2 tablespoons of borax mixed into a 3 gallon watering can). This should be done no more than once a season, because too much borax is bad news for healthy soil.

Growing cabbages under cover

You also will need to protect plants from several types of leaf-eating caterpillars. In spring, covering plants with horticultural fleece helps warm the soil and buffers cold winds while keeping out insects, birds, and bunnies.

Caterpillars in particular love innocent young cabbage plants. When you see white butterflies flitting around your cabbage, you are watching the mothers of cabbage-eating caterpillars laying their eggs. You can hand pick these common cabbage pests, but it is much easier to keep the butterflies from accessing your plants with netting row covers. Without row covers, you will need to treat plants from time to time with a Bacillus thuringiensis or spinosad-based organic pesticide.

Big drumhead cabbage varieties and slow-growing reds require wide spacing, but you can interplant rocket, lettuce, or other fast-growing greens between the cabbage plants. You can also fill the space with small groups of onions grown from sets. Interplanting is often better than mulching early in the season, because slugs and earwigs can become a problem when provided with the irresistible combination of big cabbage leaves shading moist mulch.

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Show Comments


"Thanks for the helpful cabbage info! Do you start your cabbage from seed? If so, do you plant the seed outside in the garden, or start them under grow lights? "
Becky Harris on Friday 20 January 2017
"Becky, I start my spring cabbage indoors under lights, starting in February, but in summer I start the seedlings outdoors in small pots and transplant them to the garden. Good luck! "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 21 January 2017
"Amazing. The cabbage looks very delicious and healthy. Thanks for the information. "
Michelle on Wednesday 1 February 2017
"Being a non gardener but a lover of buying spring cabbage I must point out my disappointment at the quality of spring cabbage I have been able to purchase these last few years the leaves being as tough as old leather as apposed to the tender buttery type leaves I remember and salivate for from the past any advice please?"
Terry fannon on Friday 3 August 2018
"Years ago I served young collards to a British friend and she said, 'It's like spring cabbage!" One never sees such a thing in markets, and I think the produce industry has trouble with novel, seasonal vegetables. If you don't grow baby cabbage or collards yourself, farmers markets are the place to look for these treasures."
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 3 August 2018
"I have tried a number of different varieties of cabbage with good success with them heading and we like the flavor of most. The problem I have is the stalks growing so long they fall over and some have been ! 1/2' long. I tried doubling the lighting when growing from seed indoors and they looked good but when they hit the ground the stalks just grow. I found your article very interesting."
Ray Kent on Wednesday 15 August 2018
"Ray, the only tidbit I know is that heat is associated with stem elongation in cabbage. I've seen this in the fall when I tried varieties that take a long time to mature."
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 17 August 2018
"Looking for an old variety of cabbage called Little Rock ,it was distributed by Midwest seed co. Back in the 60’s to 80’s. This is late cabbage that is great for pitting(storing in trenches with root up and dirt packed around them) it will keep til March or April. I need to locate some seed or another variety that will work. Thanks."
Dave jones on Wednesday 4 March 2020
"Dave, I can't find Little Rock anywhere, so it may have been lost over time. You might try Danish Ballhead, which should work for this, or maybe January King. "
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 4 March 2020

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