Kraut Kultur

Cabbage growing and the road to better health.

Cabbage grew well with mulch of cardboard and henhouse litter, despite drought. –Susan Safford

I suspect I was not the only gardener during this driest of summers to experience cabbage cracking last week. The blast of moisture delivered by Tropical Storm Hermine (one inch in the rain gauge) rushed into them, and caused five to begin to crack. However, not much time had passed before I noticed, and so sauerkraut production began immediately.

Earlier in the season I had described how I planned to use cardboard and well-aged henhouse litter to mulch portions of the vegetable garden, with the goals of earthworm proliferation, improving fertility, and moisture conservation. When I started this garden I never encountered a single earthworm, none!

I am encouraged by the results. I was able to cover the aisles between rows in the least fertile section, first with cardboard and then with litter layered over that. There is an endless supply of post-purchase plain cardboard, but even with a year’s yield of “deep-litter system,” it was insufficient to cover the entire garden.

There has been one unanticipated result: tunneling by moles, voles, or shrews (?), hunting for earthworm snacks. No plants have actually been uprooted, and I suppose the tunneling is increasing soil aeration, so as long as they leave some earthworms for the garden, I suspend judgment — for now. The area of cardboard/mulch has consistently shown greater dampness than the unmulched portion, demonstrating the attraction it has for moisture in the air.

I wanted to have a staggered cabbage supply for a source of coleslaw and sauerkraut. Despite the drought, these dozen plants grew well. I watered them once or twice and Bt’ed them regularly, and was admiring their rock-solid development when TS Hermine meandered in.

Cracking in cabbage heads is one of those problems with uneven moisture supply, so is a particular concern in gardens like mine that are unirrigated. Left undiscovered, heads become largely unusable: The cracking invites insects and deterioration. I cut, rather than pulled, the cabbages I harvested: if left, often the cut stumps will produce another small cabbage or two. I also planted successor cabbage plants for fall harvest later on.

So — what is this sauerkraut buzz (and narrative) about, and why does it matter? If you follow the link below, you will read a brief but suggestive overview of sauerkraut’s importance and benefits. Digestive disturbances are rife today. Allergies, constipation, antibiotic use, and vitamin deficiency are as well.

As it was, I took the five cabbages into the kitchen and cleared the counters for sauerkraut production. Most kitchens nowadays possess food processors, but once upon a time special oversize mandoline-type devices were used for it, when it consisted of processing hundreds of heads of cabbage for a winter’s worth of sauerkraut. For a photo of it, follow the link

Five good-size heads run through the 4-mm slicing disc amount to three oversize mixing bowls’ worth of cabbage filaments. Each bowl is tossed with three to four tablespoons of kosher salt (avoid iodized salt or salt with additives that impede fermentation) sprinkled over, and then tasted for saltiness. The salt draws the juices. These cracked cabbages were very juicy, but when making sauerkraut with winter-storage cabbage, one often encounters much drier ones.

Too little salt promotes insufficient fermentation, and other forms of deterioration, while too much inhibits the proliferation of even the desirable salt-tolerating lactobacilli. The cabbage is then massaged, or bruised/slammed, to get the juices flowing, while being packed into Mason jars or a crock. Complete submersion under the juice is the goal.

I prefer the crock, so the cabbage is packed by being pounded in with a wooden mallet, the weights and lid placed over, the water airlock channel filled, and all being left at room temperature for fermentation to commence. (A teaspoon of whey can be sprinkled over, ensuring inoculation with lactobacilli.) As soon as “burping” occurs, the crock can be moved to a cooler place to finish, taking approximately two weeks.

Sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables have been humans’ solution to the above-cited maladies over countless generations, as well as being a time-tested means of preserving and securing the harvest. Growing cabbage and making traditional sauerkraut is a simple means to a better diet and health well within the reach of ordinary people.

In the garden: Harvest time

Apart from soil improvement, which I have already touched upon slightly, what else is on the fall garden agenda? Well, soil improvement, soil improvement, and soil improvement.

After that, procure or order seed garlic, and consider cover cropping for soil protection over the winter. The selection of cover-crop seed and blends gets more extensive every passing year, it seems. I continue to experiment with strawberries as a cover crop on a sloping portion of the vegetable garden.

I am reasonably pleased with the Malabar spinach/salad greens tent made from two pieces of concrete reinforcing mesh, the handsome, vining Malabar spinach (Basella alba ‘Rubra’) climbing over the top, and the salads in its shade beneath.

There is no better time than right now to make pesto and frozen cubes of salsa or herbs, and to process tomatoes, beans, and other crops you would want in the pantry or freezer over winter.

As my colleague Lynne Irons has observed, tomato-hungry varmints seem to be an increasing problem. There are so many different ways for a luscious, perfect, ripe tomato to be blighted or bitten! I knew that Harold Lewis, one of the Island’s premier truck gardeners from an earlier era, always picked his tomatoes when they began to color, and let them ripen on the shelf. Is it squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice, or birds? Or just cracking? I have not had much luck in getting the best fruit for us. Fortunately, the pest does not seem to be interested in summer squash or green peppers.