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The ABCs of growing cabbage

May 5, 2009  By Hugh McElhon

With more than 13,000 acres planted every year, “cabbage is king in New York state,” says Stephen Reiners, a researcher with Cornell University.

The vegetable’s kingdom has also been expanding as the market for cabbage grows slowly but steadily, he adds.

During the 1920s, Americans consumed an average of 22 pounds of cabbage per person. This steadily declined to a low of just under eight pounds during the 1990s but has since rebounded to more than 10 pounds in recent years. Reiners says sales tend to peak mid-March when corned beef and cabbage are a popular meal during St. Patrick’s Day festivities.


Much of the growth in cabbage sales can be attributed to fresh products such as ready-to-eat bagged salads. Also new to the market is a sauerkraut-flavoured mustard that, as the name implies, is mustard infused with a dash of dried sauerkraut.

There has also been a resurgence in sauerkraut sales among those 35 years of age and up. Reiners says this age group appears to be interested in the anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties that researchers have found in broccoli and cabbage. Both vegetables are an excellent source of vitamin C and also contain significant amounts of the amino acid, glutamine, he adds.

Like other agricultural sectors, food safety is a concern among New York’s cabbage growers. While there have been no problems in cabbage to date, Reiners says E. coli scares in other crops have made growers vigilant in following manure spreading regulations, plus the proximity of pastures and livestock to fields. Irrigation water is regularly tested and monitored for E. coli and bacteria levels.

One of the trends Reiners has seen in the industry is a move from direct seeding to plug planting. “Direct seeding is cheaper but you need good ground preparation for germination,” he says. “There can also be a problem getting a good stand, maintaining weed control, plus the rising cost of seed.”

Growers also need to be sure there is no bacterial rot in the seed. “The companies do their utmost to deliver clean seed,” he notes, adding there should not be many problems.

Cabbage transplants can be either plugs raised in trays in a greenhouse, or bare root plants that are intensely cropped in a small field, then pulled and transplanted into large fields.

“Compared to one guy sowing with a drill, plug transplants are a more expensive way to grow,” says Reiners. There are greenhouse and labour costs associated plus transplant shock can be a problem. Despite these factors, plug plants deliver a more uniform stand, and a much earlier yield for the early market, he says.

For soil fertility, Reiners says cabbage prefers a pH range of 6.2 to 6.5 so that all nutrients are available to the plant. If the soil is more acidic – below a pH of 6 – he recommends a split application of four tons per acre of lime applied in the fall with the other half applied in the spring. Ideally, the lime should be ploughed down or well incorporated into the soil.

“Club root is a persistent problem and can live in the soil for seven to 10 years,” says Reiners. As a remedy, he says problem fields can be taken out of rotation and the pH increased to 7.2, which club root does not like. An alternative control is to band apply hydrated lime next to the plant.

For full season fertility, Reiners recommends a per acre range of 100 to 120 pounds of nitrogen, 40 to 120 pounds of phosphorus, and 60 to 160 pounds of potash. This should be applied and incorporated before planting, with 20 to 40 pounds of nitrogen side dressed later.

“Remember that you’ll have nitrogen available if manure, vetch or clover were on the field before,” he says. “So take a soil test to see just how much nitrogen you really need. This could save you some good money on fertilizer.”

As for pests and diseases, “cabbage has a ton of them,” Reiners says. “There’s club root, black rot, flea beetles, caterpillars, and more recently, the Swede midge.” The latter was found in broccoli fields in Ontario in 2001, and later moved into New .York. He explained the continuous cropping of broccoli there led to an increase in the Swede midge population.

While not a problem in early years, damage from onion thrips is a growing concern. Some pesticide work on thrips control has been done but researchers are looking into resistant varieties. He adds cabbage damaged by thrips can be used for sauerkraut but it would not qualify for Kosher, which is a big market in the U.S.

Cabbage destined for sauerkraut is machine-harvested, so labour costs are not an issue. “Generally though, cabbage (cut by hand) for the fresh market is a labour intensive crop. So you should aim for a uniform crop size and maturity and try to do a once-over harvest to keep those costs down.”

Approximately 40 per cent of cabbage is held in storage before it hits the market. If it is properly harvested and stored, cabbage will keep well for up to eight months. “The key is to keep the guys from throwing it into bins,” Reiners says. “If it’s bruised, it won’t last long.”

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