The proper distance between plants depends upon the variety, purpose of the crop, fertility of the soil, and methods of cultivating, spraying and harvesting. Early varieties, as Jersey Wakefield, may be planted 14 × 26 inches or even closer; Charleston Wakefield, 16 × 28; Early Summer and Succession, 18 × 28; Danish Ball Head, 18 × 30; Flat Dutch and other late flat-headed varieties, 24 × 36 inches. Close planting is conducive to small heads, which are often preferred by consumers. If sold by the head, and if the heads are large enough to meet market requirements, a maximum number to the acre will of course secure largest returns. The richer the soil the closer the plants may be set and still get heads of marketable size. Close planting, however, prohibits cultivation late in the season, which is very important in dry weather. It may also prevent the use of power sprayers, and of carts or wagons when harvesting the crop. Yields by weight are larger when distances are medium rather than close. The most approved plan is to plant rather close in the row and allow a liberal space between rows. Some of the most successful growers prefer planting in check rows because of advantages in cultivating, and because less hoeing is required than in the usual method.
A moist soil and damp, cloudy weather are most favorable to transplanting in the field. The plants should not be checked more than necessary and an effort should be made to retain as much soil as possible on the roots. If grown in flats, each plant may be removed with a portion of soil and manure attached (Figure 38). Flat-grown plants if carefully removed from the boxes may be set in the driest weather without watering, either at the time of transplanting or afterward. It is urgent, however, that no time be lost in getting the plants into the field when the time for planting arrives. This time is variable through the North, but April 15 is not too early for most sections. If the plants have been well hardened, they will stand severe freezing in the field, and a drop of 10 degrees below freezing may do no harm.
In the South the plants are usually set in the fall on the south or the east side of ridges. Deep planting is important for fall setting, to prevent splitting or bursting of the stems.
Large areas are generally planted by machines. The transplanter is a valuable implement, because its work is better than that of many laborers. By steady driving the rows may be made very straight and the plants set even more firmly than by hand. The furrow is closed in a few moments after it is opened, so there is no time for the soil to dry out and the roots are brought into intimate relation with the soil particles. Water may be used if necessary. A team, a driver and two droppers can plant three to four acres in a day of 10 hours.
The plants may also be set by the use of dibbers and trowels. Some growers open furrows with a narrow shovel plow. When the furrow method is used, the plants should be set promptly, before the fresh soil becomes dry.
When cabbage is grown on a large scale, intercropping is seldom practiced. Market gardeners, however, with a limited land area often find companion cropping very desirable. (See Chapter XXIII (Succession And Companion Cropping).)
Tillage should begin as soon as the plants are sufficiently erect after setting and be repeated at frequent intervals. It should be continued as late as possible, crowding between the rows, even if some leaves are broken from the plants. There will be few broken, however, if the cultivating is done between 9.00 a. m. and 4.00 p. m., when the leaves are limp and bend readily.
When the demand is great and prices high, it requires patience to wait until the early crop is fully ready to market. The fact is that a large percentage of early cabbage is cut before the heads become sufficiently solid to hold up well. The result is the market is crowded with inferior cabbage, which causes dissatisfaction among dealers as well as among consumers. The bulk of the southern crop is packed and sold in crates or barrels, with insufficient regard to the weights of the filled packages. A nearly matured head will occupy about as much space as it would a few days later when hard and solid, but would weigh much less. Sales are always restricted when the heads are soft and loose. It is doubtful whether cabbage should ever be cut until solid, except late in the fall, when there is danger of severe weather that would entail loss. If sold by weight it is seldom that the increase in weight will not make up for the decline in price.
A large butcher knife is the most satisfactory tool for cutting cabbage. A whetstone should be kept in the field and used often enough to maintain a sharp edge on the knife. In cutting, place one hand on the head, first determining, if necessary, its solidity, then with the other hand sever it while it is drawn to one side, retaining as few outer leaves as possible. Whether sold by weight or in packages the outer leaves should be removed. When the crop is to be stored in pits or houses, it is customary to retain two or three outer leaves for protection. If the cabbage is to be buried, a sharp hatchet is the most serviceable tool with which to cut the stems.
Two or three rows of extra early varieties are often planted at convenient intervals to provide roadways for gathering the crop. Intensive gardeners often use wheelbarrows with large boxes, while growers cultivating large fields generally plant so that a wagon will straddle two rows. There is no difficulty in collecting the late crop, for it is usually cut clean. Cabbage should always be handled with care, to prevent bruising. An excellent plan is to keep a man on the wagon to catch and place the heads as fast as two or three men can cut and trim them. If cut during the day when the wagons are absent, three or four rows may be placed together for convenience in loading.