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Perennial vegetables: Tree cabbage

Tree cabbages

Tree cabbages

Recently I visited a small and very good privately owned local nursery. Even though it was a weekday, there were quite a few people browsing.

I always enjoy chatting to the counter staff  if it’s quiet. These people know what exactly is passing through their tills and are often more straightforward than management. I was at the end of a long snakeing queue so I jumped in.
“How’s the grow your own stuff going this year?”
“OK but not a patch on last year. Of course we’re selling loads of tomato plants as usual.”
I was stunned. Usually I hear that the GYO market is growing so fast that it’s almost skidding.
“Why do you reckon that the grow your own sales have dropped off?”
“Well if I’m anything to go by they proved to be a lot of work. I just had pots and bought a few plants but the time and space that it took to grow a few cabbages was ridiculous. I work 6 days a week. There just wasn’t time to care for them.”

She was disappointed and of course she gave up on GYO. Walking to my car I felt depressed too. What a shame that she’d enthusiastically invested in baby plants, bought compost and dreamed. If we want to encourage the GYO movement we need to help more. Be more practical. Otherwise we could easily kill any latent enthusiasm in just one season.

We do grow cabbages here at CSH. But they require a lot of space for a small return. Sutherland Kale is a much better bet in terms of space and value. This is an easy to grow annual from seed. Vegetables like these are never available as mini plants at garden centres. Garden centres tend to focus on veg that everyone has heard of – they do need to sell plants after all.

I’ve met quite a few people who have tried to grow their own and found them to be more trouble than they are worth. Pressed for time, needing to work longer hours, the kids, washing and cleaning are priorities. The mini garden needs care to flourish but it so often drops off the bottom of the list.

This is where the value of perennial vegetables comes in. They continue to produce as you harvest so one or two plants are the equivalent to a long row in a kitchen garden. They feed you for a few years. A lot of them are attractive and would happily coexist with flowers and shrubs in a herbaceous border. They do need care and water but often not quite as much as a traditional annual vegetable. With all these plus points they are well worth investigating, growing and if you like them, talking about.

Today it’s Tree cabbage. This is a delicious perennial vegetable that I thought was an annual.

I bought seed from the Real Seed Company last year. Paul & Becky’s Asturian Tree Cabbage. With dyslexia at the helm, I read Austrian Tree Cabbage. Did they grow this in the mountains or valleys? I needn’t have worried. This grew well for us in a pretty bad spot, dry with overhanging trees.

I’ve since discovered that Asturia is a costal region of Spain.

Tree cabbage grows to about 2’/ 60cm. The leaves sprout from the top of the long fibrous stem. I reckon that it could be grown in a substantial pot. A couple of plants could satisfy the cabbage needs of a person living alone. In fact my mum is really keen to adopt a couple of plants and just pluck a few leaves for a sweet, ultra fresh and tasty cabbage experience. As a perennial, you harvest and then more leaves grow.

I’m not over keen on cabbage but I do like this variety. A sweet gentle flavour and satisfying. Danny adores cabbage so he’s thrilled with this plant.

A few of our tree cabbage plants were sprouting this spring – super sweet sprouts steamed for just a few minutes. I surmised that this was the flowering before death – like sprouting broccoli. Then I noticed that the sprouting plants were growing more leaves and really bulking up. When I consulted the seed pack, I discovered that tree cabbage is in fact a perennial. So now I’ve got five baby tree cabbage plants with nowhere to grow. I’m determined to find a space somewhere for this tasty, easy vegetable.

Our tree cabbages stood well over winter (with only a net to deter the wood pigeons). They were not knocked by the snow and freezing conditions apart from the two plants that had twisted down with their crowns touching the ground. I will stake the new batch to avoid this happening next winter. The leaves tasted even sweeter after the first frosts.

I’m not sure of the lifespan of this tree cabbage. Research in the Internet indicates at least two to three years. If you are short on space and time but would like a good supply of fresh cabbage leaves do try growing this plant. You’ll not regret it.


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18 Comments

  1. Garden Tools

    Wow, I’d never heard of tree cabbage, but it definitely sounds like a plant that I would love to try. Now I just need to see if any of my local nurseries offer it. *crosses fingers* I am off to search!

    • Get the seeds by mail from Real Seeds Catalogue.Ethical and much much less expensive than some other on line seed suppliers, including a lower postage and package for low wage/unwaged gardeners. No hybrids just good quality seed. What’s not to like.

  2. Magic Cochin

    I like the sound of this cabbage… a good addition to the garden. I too prefer to grow kale rather than cabbages.

    For the first time for over 20 years it looks as though my tree onions have disappeared! maybe I was just too diligent clearing the beds this year! I’m hoping that one of the many feral onions around the garden will turn out to be a tree onion.

    Celia

  3. Paul @ GrowingOurOwn

    They sound great! I’m all for things that will grow for a few years, I’ll have to look these up me thinks… I got some walking onions this year too, they’re my new toy for the year lol.

  4. Joanna

    Hi Fiona,

    very interesting to hear your views on tree cabbage. just one question: do you need to net it from cabbage white butterflies? here we are PLAGUED with them (probably everywhere else, too), and that always puts me off growing brassicas seriously.

    xJoanna

  5. maggenpie

    Thanks for this, tree cabbage sounds ideal for my limited space. I’ve always been interested in what I call ‘good value’ plants, maximum return for minimum use of space and time. This could easily be tucked into a perennial flower border or herb bed. Interesting post!

  6. Ooh, new plant 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  7. skybluepinkish

    That looks really interesting. I shall investigate further. I was looking at our cabbages this weekend and wondering why I bothered since they take up so much space and are eaten so quikly. Kale is lovely and takes up much less space but IMHO isn’t quite as good as a cabbage!

    We have invested in a tree onion this year. The onions grow at the top (and if not harvested will fall down and root – hence the alternative name walking onion!)
    Gillie

  8. Joanna

    Forgot to mention we live in Latvia, which I know Fiona is aware of but not everyone who reads the comments – sorry 🙂

  9. Joanna

    I was just about to get really excited about this and wonder if it would work where we are, even if we do have very harsh winters when a reality check set in. Plants can survive over the winter fine as in Swiss Chard which gives you two years and leeks but if the deer get in and eat them, nothing survives that and that is our biggest problem and an electric fence does not keep the deer off in winter as the snow is over the fence.

  10. Paula

    Thanks for the suggestion- I’d never heard of tree cabbage before. I like kale a lot, because you can keep cutting it all season long, but not having to plant something for a few years would be good, and being able to harvest cabbage that is way up in the air well away from the slugs sounds good to me!

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