How to grow a giant cabbage
By David Thomas one of the UK's best growers of giant cabbage. (The guide includes a number of pictures from our 2013 Cabbage attempt)
I have been growing giant cabbage now for 9 years. It all started when I grew a pumpkin from a shop bought seed back in 1999.Â The pumpkin seemed fairly big so when I heard about the National Giant Vegetable Show in Shepton Mallet I thought I would take my pumpkin along, it weighed in at 220lbs and took third prize. Whilst I was at the show I was amazed by all of the other giant vegetables on display especially the giant cabbage. I had seen cabbage just as big as this before in Cornwall, George Rogers a local farmer regularly won prizes at the local Fatstock shows with his strain of Flatpol Cabbage so as soon as I got home I contacted George to see if he would part with some seed. George was happy to give me some seed so ever since I have been growing them and gradually increasing the weight. There are a few other varieties that can be grown such as Northern Giant, OS Cross and Megaton but George's seed are the ones that suit me and the ones that are capable of breaking the World Record.
George's seed can be sown in the autumn (fall) or early spring, I sow in the autumn as the Malvern Autumn Show is quite early and the cabbage are very slow to heart up. I have found that the end of October or early November is the ideal sowing time. I tried planting earlier one year and it ended up in disaster, all of my plants flowered in June and I had nothing to show. I use multipurpose compost to start the seeds; I fill a seed tray and sprinkle the seed on then cover with a thin layer of compost. The seed tray is then put into the greenhouse and kept at about 10C - 20C. I have a heater set for frost protection. The seed usually take about a week to emerge. When they start to grow a rough leaf I transplant them into 3 1/2" pots, they are then kept in the greenhouse with frost protection until they are big enough to transplant into 5 litre pots, it's best to do this before they become potbound (encourages them to go to seed). The plants are then grown on slowly in the greenhouse until the end of March.
My soil type is a clay/loam. Cabbage will grow in all soil types as long as they are not sat in water so your soil needs plenty of drainage. I give my soil a coating of well rotted farm yard manure in the autumn and then before planting the ground gets a good deep cultivating. I usually have a soil test done sometime in the winter to check the P and K levels,the ideal P is at least 36ppm and K at least 240ppm, I like a fairly high Ph of about 7.5 or 8 as this cuts down the risk of club root. It may lock up some trace elements but these can be added as a foliar feed. I wait until the ground is dry, my idea of dry is that the soil must not stick to your boots and when you dig deeper and grab a handful of soil it should not stick together and make a ball. Then I do my deep cultivation and plant the cabbage. The cabbages are planted 8 foot apart to give them plenty of room. When I take the cabbage out of the pot they are usually potbound, I tear off all of the roots that are swirling around in the shape of the pot, this sounds a bit drastic and I would never treat a pumpkin plant in this way but on a cabbage it actually increases root growth. I plant the cabbage up to the base of the lowest leaf, the buried stem will also send out roots. After the cabbage is planted I surround each one with frames that I have made out of steel bar, they are made out of 8x2 bars, 4 of them are welded into a square and the other 4 are then welded on as legs, the legs are pushed into the ground and then surrounded with pallet wrap. These frames stay with the cabbage until the day that I cut for the show.
Once they are planted I sprinkle a handful of Dingley's Top N around the base of the plant, this is a fertilizer based on chicken manure, the analysis is 21.01.0.45 . It is slow release and just feeds the cabbage enough N to keep it going, I have found that too much N makes the plant tender and weak so I don't over do it, also too much N will delay hearting up. They then get a monthly top up of Dingley's as the cabbage grows I give them slightly more further away from the base and end up giving them 3 handfuls.
Pests to look out for are Cabbage Root Fly, Slugs, Aphids, Caterpillars and Pigeons. Diseases to look out for are Ringspot, Alternaria and Downy Mildew. I give my plants a preventative spray for all of the above (apart from pigeons) at least every 2 weeks.
The soil around the cabbage needs to be kept damp but not wet. The cabbage will grow up and over the frame, the stump of an 80lb cabbage will not be strong enough so the frame is essential. Another problem that I get as the cabbage gets bigger is water lodging in the base of the leaf, my way around this is to simply poke a hole in the lowest part of the leaf to let the water drain away (not through the main vein). I check for water at least once a week.
The cabbage will grow slowly all summer and the heart usually starts late July/Early August, just keep an eye out for pests and diseases in this time. If pigeons become a problem I net the cabbage to keep them off.
The biggest problem at show time is deciding which one is heaviest, I find that the bigger framed cabbage usually have a soft heart and the hard centered cabbage usually have not got a lot of outer leaf, it's not like a pumpkin that you can put a tape measure around and decide which one should be heaviest. The ideal cabbage is the one with a large hard heart and plenty of outer leaf - it's not often that I get both together.
To harvest my cabbage I get a large sheet which is placed on the floor beside the cabbage, I then get all of the family out to help. I grab the heart itself and everyone else (probably 4 people) support as many outside leaves as possible, then another person saws the cabbage off just below the last leaf joint. When the saw has made it through the stump we all lift together and gently place the cabbage on the center of the sheet. I then draw the opposite corners of the sheet together and tie them, this method of transporting them doesn't damage the leaves very much at all. When I get to the show the whole lot goes onto the scales to be weighed then the cabbage is put onto the bench and the sheet and any loose leaves are weighed and subtracted from the total.
Well that's the basics, you may want to change things to suit your situation but I think as long as you follow what I think are the main rules of growing any giant which are: - get the right seed, make sure the ground is in good condition, keep them pest, disease and weed free, feed and water them what they want when they want it and protect them from any conditions they don't like i.e. Frost/wind etc. then you should do well.
Good luck and I hope to see more giant cabbage being grown!! If you are interested in cabbage seeds, please visit here