Red cabbage: care, harvest & use

Fredrik
Fredrik
Fredrik
Fredrik

Having grown up in the countryside, nature and self-sufficiency have always been big part of my life. I live and breathe nature and had the chance to delve even deeper into this interest during my studies in agricultural systems science at university.

Favourite fruit: apples, blackberries and plums
Favourite vegetables: potatoes, peppers and courgettes

Red cabbage, also known as blaukraut, is a popular winter vegetable. Find out here, how to care for it properly and what to consider when harvesting red cabbage.

red cabbage
The compact head and reddish colouring make the red cabbage unique [Photo: BBA Photography/ Shutterstock.com]

Red cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata f. rubra) is probably one of the most typical German side dishes to hearty dishes, especially in the winter and Christmas season. Relying on the cabbage from the supermarket or from the jar does not have to be, because the reddish-bluish cabbage also thrives in the home garden. We explain how to grow healthy cabbage yourself and how to care for it properly.

Red cabbage: origin, characteristics and taste

The original form of red cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata f. rubra) is still found on the Atlantic coasts of France, Ireland, and England, namely wild cabbage, which is the origin of many modern cabbage species. As early as the 12th century, Hildegard von Bingen mentioned the vegetable for the first time with the designation “rubeae caules”, which means “reddish stalk”. Red cabbage represents a cultivated form of vegetable cabbage (Brassica oleracea) and thus belongs to the Brassica genus, a member of the cruciferous family (Brassicaceae).

Seeing red cabbage bloom is rather atypical, as it is a biennial plant and is usually harvested in the first year, before the formation of the flowerhead in the second year. To form the flower, cabbage needs a four-week rest period during the winter, when temperatures are around 0 °C. The flowerhead can eventually grow up to 90 cm tall and produces yellow flowers about the size of a fingernail, each with four petals, between May and June. The flowers are pollinated by insects, but can also pollinate themselves. From the fertilised flowers red cabbage forms seeds, which are naturally spread by the wind.

Tip: The round cabbages form closely spaced leaves that can take on a different colour depending on the pH and composition of the soil. This characteristic makes red cabbage a well-known soil indicator. When grown in acidic soils, it develops a reddish hue, while in alkaline soils it appears more bluish.

Cut open red cabagge
Red cabbage is also a vivid purple-red on the inside [Photo: Kotcha K/ Shutterstock.com]

The colour of red cabbage can also be influenced by the way it is cooked. As a result of the addition of vinegar or sour apples, for example, the cabbage becomes a little more acidic and turns red. Unseasoned, red cabbage tastes sweet and mild and has a slightly sweet note that combines well with fruit, but also goes very well with savoury dishes.

Plant care: fertilising and watering

Red cabbage is easy to grow if the soil and site conditions are good. Under ideal conditions and with low pest pressure, it provides the amateur gardener with flavoursome and large cabbages that can be preserved well without much effort.

For details on growing, such as proper plant spacing or following a crop rotation, see our dedicated article on planting red cabbage.

Young red cabbage plants
Red cabbage grows best in bright, sunny locations [Photo: Ruud Morijn Photographer/ Shutterstock.com]

As a highly nutritious plant, fertilisation is very important for red cabbage, with nitrogen and potassium applications in particular promoting growth. Yields can be significantly increased through high organic fertilisation. Care should be taken, however, as over-fertilisation makes the cabbage susceptible to disease, it can take on an unpleasant sulphur taste and the flavour fades. A potassium-rich fertiliser promotes proper supply to the plant, prevents a change in taste and ensures healthy growth of the cabbage heads. For example, our Plantura Tomato Food with its potassium-rich nutrient ratio, is ideal for providing tomato and cabbage cultivars with the best possible care. In the production process, we avoid the use of animal products and focus on a large proportion of organic components, which promotes soil life and creates ideal growing conditions for plants.

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It is best to fertilise red cabbage at the time of planting and two more times during growth. In this way, the cabbages are evenly supplied with nutrients. Late cultivars should not be fertilised after September, because the nutrients can not be absorbed during the cold season. With earlier cultivars, on the other hand, it is advisable not to give them any fertiliser for three weeks before harvesting.

Red cabbage needs sufficient water for healthy growth and should therefore be watered intensively on a regular basis, especially during the dry summer months. Although the plant can survive intermittent periods of drought, the quality and size of the heads suffer.

Common diseases and pests

Red cabbage has to deal with the typical pests and diseases of cabbage. Pests include the little cabbage fly (Delia radicum), which is the most important pest of head cabbage. However, the powdery cabbage aphid (Brevicoryne brassicae), the cabbage moth (Mamestra brassicae), the butterfly caterpillar of the small white (Pieris rapae), and the whitefly (moth scale aphids of the Aleyrodidae family) can also cause problems. In addition to insects, infestation by cabbage cyst nematodes (Heterodera cruciferae) or stemnematodes (Ditylenchus dipsaci) can significantly damage the plant. After being planted out in the open, young plants should be protected from slugs and snails. Diseases that are particularly dangerous to red cabbage include cabbage hernia (Plasmodiophora brassicae) – a fungal disease that negatively affects growth and causes leaves to wilt. As with all cabbage cultivars, a growing interval of three to five years should be observed for the same bed to prevent the spread of disease.

Red cabbage plants and marigold
Planting red cabbage and marigold close by one another helps to deter nematodes [Photo: theapflueger/ Shutterstock.com]

Harvesting and storing red cabbage

Depending on the variety, harvest time for red cabbage begins as early as July. Later cultivars usually tolerate frost without problems, as long as temperatures do not fall below -4 °C. Cabbage can remain in the bed and be “stored” in this way until use. To harvest red cabbage, cut the stem below the cabbage head with a sharp knife and remove excess leaves. Late cultivars can be hung upside down by the stalk after harvest and stored in a cool cellar or garage until February without any worries. Before processing, the outer leaves should be removed. Red cabbage can also be stored outside in ground pits.

Tip: In mild regions, red cabbage can also be sown as early as autumn and then harvested as early as May.

Uses and constituents

Red cabbage can be eaten both raw and cooked. The best-known use is probably the preserved blue cabbage, which is a delicious side dish, especially with hearty dishes. The vegetable should not be overcooked, otherwise it loses valuable nutrients and its flavour. It is better to heat the cabbage slowly. But how does the cabbage stay red when cooked? Adding a little acid – such as vinegar or sour apples – preserves the colour. And red cabbage also makes a great raw vegetable – either as a colourful addition to traditional salads or as a red coleslaw.

If you want to preserve red cabbage and at the same time like quickly prepared side dishes, you can boil it down and quickly heat it up if necessary. It is somewhat less time-consuming to freeze the cut red cabbage. It can be stored in the refrigerator for about six weeks.

Shredded red cabbage in bowl
Red cabbage can be eaten raw as a red coleslaw or cooked as a side dish [Photo: istetiana/ Shutterstock.com]

What makes red cabbage so healthy? Red cabbage is not only aromatic and delicious because of the nutrients it contains, but also extremely healthy: iron and other minerals, antioxidant pigments (anthocyanins), fibre and vitamin C are contained. Especially because of the anthocyanins, make sure you do not overcook red cabbage, or eat it raw.

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