Cabbage and broccoli are close cousins, but with very different habits. They're members of the cole family, a large clan which also includes cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi and turnips.
All together, they've picked up a reputation for being crude and coarse -- and cabbage, as the bestknown member of the family, takes most of the slurs. The smell of overcooked cabbage has bad associations for most people -- it's said to smell like poverty, and it often brings back childhood memories that people would rather forget.
But this odor is not the fault of the cabbage, since it only gets strong in overcooking; it's the fault of the cook. Lightly steamed cabbage actually has a pleasant aroma. It smells fresh. And raw cabbage has a crisp, mild flavor that has made coleslaw almost universally accepted, even by people who hate cabbage.
Cabbage is the King Cole -- and if it has associations with poverty, it's only because it's been kind to the poor. It's easy to grow and store, fairly hardy in cold climates, and it keeps so well that it's a fairly inexpensive vegetable throughout the winter -- even for people who don't have it in thier own root cellars.
If you grow some, and get to know it on its own ground, you can't help but learn to love cabbage. It's a powerful plant, quickly putting out huge leaves. Once it's staked out its territory, it puts out smaller leaves, which curl around each other with the beauty of an old-fashioned rose.
To me, the cabbage is also mysterious in the way that it leaves curl around something intangible and seem to hold the secrets of the universe. If you take a red cabbage and slice it in half, you'll find a wonder of design waiting within. It's a study in purple and white, in shadow and light, a perfect merging of the yin and the yang, positive and negative. In fact, it's one of those works of art that are so perfect only nature could have done them.
I've had a friend tell me that my red cabbage patch looked like a giant rose garden from another planet -- and red cabbage are strange and beautiful. The leaves are iridescent, more frosty blue than deep purple, and highly exotic. I like to see them mixed with heads of pale green cabbage in a "flower" bed that appeals to both esthetics and appetite.
Among the green cabbages, there's a wide variety. Savory is light green, with crinkled leaves and a center that's pale yellow, like a head of butter lettuce. Wakefield grows into pointed little heads. Some grow round as globes, others into flattened variations on the theme.
All need a rich soil, because they're heavy feeders. Add plenty of compost to the cabbage patch, and enough lime or wood ashes to keep aphids to a minimum. Cabbages need good drainage, and full sun. They prefer cool climates, and can go outside a few weeks before the last spring frost.
If you start outside with seed, thin the seedlings to stand about 1 1/2 to two feet apart. If you set plants out, allow them the same space, and try to mix reds and greens for the visual effect.
Apply a thick hay mulch once the plants are strong, keep them cool, moist and untroubled by weeds. Watch for the white butterflies that lay the eggs of cabbage worms. The worms are so close in color to the green of cabbage, you have to search them out.
For a light infestation, you can handpick, but for a worms, spray with Dipel, Bacillus Thuringiensis, an organic, biological control.
Once it washes away, be prepared to spray again in a few weeks if more worms arrive. I've noticed the worms are much less of problem with red cabbages, and I think it's because they know, somehow. that they have no protective coloration in this realm.
Broccoli is grown like cabbage, but it does something completely different. Instead of globular heads, each broccoli plant sends up a thick flower stalk with hundreds of tiny buds. The budding tops are harvested before the flowers begin to open. Broccoli doesn't stop after one cutting, though, as cabbage does, and it will keep at it until the weather gets very hot, when the stakes become too woody to eat.
Don't let prejudice keep you from growing coles. Give them a chance, and you may find love. At least you'll understand why, in France, the words, "Mon petit chou," or "My little cabbage," are never used as an insult, but as a term of endearment. After all, a head of cabbage is simply a flower, but on a grander scale.