A cabbage grows fat and happy in long-day, summer-temperate climes such as those in Nova Scotia or old Scotland. In the American South, a plump cabbage can be a rare beast requiring methodical care and the cooperation of the weather gods.
Novice cabbage grower Cole Caywood, who is 9, has a tip: Find a pot. Between March and August, Cole shepherded a cabbage from transplant to a monster 30-pound green cannonball by growing it in a 20-inch container. The plant was raised under the watchful eye of his grandparents, Marie and Jerry Cornett, on an upland farm on the outskirts of the town of Damascus in southwest Virginia.
Cole lives right across the road — with his parents, Amy and Jon Caywood — but when he got the cabbage as part of the National Bonnie Plants Cabbage Program, a third-grade project at Rhea Valley Elementary School in neighboring Meadowview, he thought it would fare better at his grandparents, who are veteran veggie growers. This was his first good move. His second was to put it in a pot. This seems counterintuitive because a cabbage likes deep soil and even moisture, especially in the heat and humidity of southern Virginia. But the container turned out to be a boon for the cabbage, a vigorous hybrid named O.S. Cross.
When it was freezing in the early spring — the farm is almost 2,000 feet above sea level — the cabbage was brought in from the back patio to spend the night in the kitchen.
When summer storms threatened, the cabbage came inside the house, so that the leaves would not be ripped by rain and wind.
Every day, after school, Cole watered the cabbage. As the season grew warmer and the cabbage bigger, he would water twice a day. He monitored for the expected arrival of the cabbage worm, although that didn’t prove a problem.
Every 15 days, he fertilized it, with supervision from his grandmother. “I told him to mix a tablespoon to a gallon of water,” she said. Cole dutifully kept a record of his daily care.
By the end of the experiment, Cole had managed to raise a cabbage whose size his family had never seen before, even after years of raising their own garden cabbages. Cole, of course, is the name gardeners give to members of the cabbage family (hence coleslaw) so perhaps this was preordained.
For his efforts, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services declared him the statewide winner, and the Alabama-based nursery grower behind the third-grade program — Bonnie Plants — will give him a $1,000 education savings bond.
The wholesale grower donates a million cabbage transplants annually to participating third-grade classes nationwide, according to the company’s website. Teachers choose a class winner based on size and condition, and these form a statewide pool of finalists. The winner is selected randomly by the head of each state agriculture department.
For Cole’s parents and grandparents, this turned out to be a wholly positive experience, underscoring the value of teaching a new generation the joys and challenges of raising plants. “I think he learned that in order to grow anything like that, it takes a lot of time, it takes commitment, and you have to be diligent,” his grandmother said.
Cole and his younger brother, Cade, were already old hands in the vegetable garden, planting potatoes, beans and the like, she said. “It’s good to see them outside, where they aren’t sitting in front of a screen all day long.”