Gardening: Nothing else is a patch on cabbage: Mr Beeton, for one, considered this vegetable the garden's most important product. Anna Pavord sets out to enhance its image

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The Independent Online
Cabbages have an image problem. You think of club root and caterpillars, starvation soups and sulphurous smells in hospital corridors. But once you have grown your own, you jettison all that negative baggage. Cabbages start to assume personalities. You begin to appreciate the difference in personality between a sensuously crinkled Savoy and an introverted white Dutch. And you learn that cabbage soup is a delight of the first order, particularly in winter.

This is a variation of the Hungarian cabbage soup from Hannah Wright's book, Soups (Robert Hale, pounds 6.95). You need: 1lb (450g) green cabbage (a bit less if you are using the beefier white), shredded finely; 8oz (225g) smoked sausage; 2 1/2 pints (1.5 litres) stock (the water from a cooked ham is excellent); one big potato; a clove of garlic, a bay leaf, parsley, salt, pepper.

Cut the sausage into slices and fry them with the crushed clove of garlic in dripping or other fat. Add the stock, the bay leaf, the potato diced, and salt if the stock is not already salty. Simmer gently for quarter of an hour. Add the cabbage and simmer for no more than five minutes. Add the parsley as you serve, either as it is or with sour cream or caraway seeds.

Where growing space is limited, the winter types are the cabbages to go for. Too much else cries out for space in summer. For the pleasure of looking at them as well as the eating, you need a Savoy type, perhaps 'Bolero' or 'Ice Queen'. They have not all been named by skating freaks, but the modern titles lack the cosy parochial quality of the old cabbage tags - 'Early Battersea', 'East Ham', 'Atkinson's Matchless' - developed on the market gardens that now lie under the North and South Circular roads.

When Savoys, which have dark leaves that are puckered more intricately than smocking, arrived from the Haute Savoie via Holland, they were enthusiastically taken up by 16th-century gardening correspondents. 'Not so rank' as the native kales, wrote the great John Evelyn approvingly. The beast as you see it at the greengrocer's, trimmed and tamed, is far greater standing untrammelled in the vegetable garden, where the outer leaves form a vast protective circle around the core, a chiselled swirl of skirt. That was not considered waste when you had sheep and pigs and chickens as well as yourself to feed.

The temptation with cabbages is to let someone else endure the fiddle of raising the plants from seed, and to buy in a few bundles of the transplants usually available from early June to July. But this way you have to accept someone else's choice of varieties. You are taking on plants that have been yanked from the ground with little care for the root system and, more seriously, face the risk of introducing clubroot to your patch.

This is one of those shuddersome diseases that lurks unseen in the soil, where it can remain active, even without any roots to club, for 20 years or more. There is no positive cure. The good news is that, preferring warm weather, it is generally less apt to attack winter cabbages. Spores of the organism creep inside roots, which react by throwing out weird nodules like deformed fingers and toes. The roots collapse. So does the plant, of course, and the spores that have multiplied inside the root system burst out of the rotting tissue and sit waiting in the soil for the next lot of suckers to come along.

Since cure is out of the question, prevention is essential. Do not compost old cabbage plants. Grow them on different land each year. Liming helps: clubroot is less of a problem on alkaline soils. Test your soil and, if the pH level is below seven, add lime at 1lb to each square yard. And remember, it may never happen.

If you are growing your own winter cabbages from seed, you will need only part of the packet. The rest should keep for at least four years. The Savoy 'Ice Queen' (Unwins, pounds 1.45) can be sown in late April or May and transplanted in July for harvesting from November onwards. The lazy way is to sow thinly, then transplant the cabbages directly to where they are to crop. You will obtain better, larger transplants if you line out seedlings when they are a couple of inches high and grow them on in fresh ground before the final move.

When you move plants to their final position use a trowel to lift them, so that the rootball is disturbed as little as possible. Make deepish holes for the plants and tip water - at least a couple of pints - into each before planting. Cabbages like firm ground around them. Stamp them in well, unless the soil is wet and sticky.

'January King' (Mr Fothergill's, 75p) is a slightly different sort of cabbage with leaves less tactile than a Savoy's. The colouring is more complex, though. The outsides of the leaves that curl over the central drumhead are flushed deep red, and the insides are as green as a spring lettuce.

White cabbage, the sort you might use to make a coleslaw, is not as hardy as the other two winter types, but the heads last well when cut. You can store them somewhere cool and frost-free inside. 'Polinius' (Marshall's, pounds 1.68) is reliable enough to stand a winter such as this (wet but not excessively cold), and it reduces less than green cabbage in cooking.

Beeton, husband of Mrs, who produced his Shilling Gardening while she was telling the genteel world how to fold its table napkins, took cabbages very seriously. 'The most important product of the garden,' he said magisterially, and 'the most exhaustive class of vegetables under the gardener's care'. He may have meant exhausting, given the list of problems that can trip up a cabbage on its way to the table.

Caterpillars are easily dealt with if you are not squeamish. The cabbage root fly is more devious because most of the damage it does goes on underground. The adults, which look pretty much like ordinary houseflies, lay their eggs close to a cabbage stem, where the maggots hatch and nosh greedily on the roots. Then the grubs turn themselves into cabbage soup, and two weeks later emerge as cabbage root flies - and the whole hideous cycle begins again. In England there can be up to three hatches a season, peaking in mid-May, mid-July and mid-September. As cabbages are most vulnerable when newly transplanted, it helps to move them only towards the end of the months in question.

A supply of old carpet underlay also helps. Cut out circles not less than 5in across; make a hole in the centre for the stem, and a slit from the centre to the outside so that the discs can be placed on the ground around new plants. Carrot fly maggots are incompetent crawlers.

Unwins Seeds, Histon, Cambridge CB4 4ZZ (0945 588522); Mr Fothergill's Seeds, Kentford, Newmarket, Suffolk CB8 7QB (0638 552512); S E Marshall & Co, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire PE13 2RF (0945 583407).