(For details on growing many other vegetables and fruits, visit our Crop at a Glance collection page.)
Dependable, nutritious, and delicious raw or cooked, both green and red cabbage are among the most productive cool-season crops. Gardeners growing cabbage in cool climates can grow huge, blue-ribbon heads. Where hot summers divide the cool seasons, fast-maturing varieties do well in spring and again in fall. All types of cabbage are at their best in late fall, after exposure to light frosts.
Types of Cabbage
Green cabbage varieties vary in their earliness and mature size. Smaller varieties can be grown at close spacing.
Red cabbage provides higher levels of vitamins A and C than other types of cabbage do, and its bright color is always beautiful on the plate.
Pointed cabbage develops conical instead of rounded heads. Its upright growth habit and tight outer leaves protect pointed cabbage from insects and sun.
Napa cabbage (or Chinese cabbage) matures quickly and produces crisp, mild-flavored leaves. Learn more in Growing Asian Greens.
For more information about types of cabbage and our recommended varieties, see our Cabbage at a Glance chart.
When to Plant Cabbage
In spring, start seeds indoors or in a cold frame eight to 10 weeks before your last spring frost, and set out hardened-off seedlings when they are about 6 weeks old. Seeds germinate best at 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
In summer, start seeds 12 to 14 weeks before your first fall frost, and transplant the seedlings to the garden when they are 4 to 6 weeks old. Plant early and late varieties to stretch your harvest season.
How to Plant Cabbage
Growing cabbage plants requires regular feeding and abundant sun. Choose a sunny, well-drained site with fertile soil that has a pH between 6.0 and 6.5.
Loosen the planting bed and mix in a 2-inch layer of compost along with a standard application of a balanced organic fertilizer or well-composted manure. Water the fertilized bed thoroughly before setting out seedlings. Allow 18 to 20 inches between plants for 4-pound varieties; larger varieties may need more room. Varieties that will produce heads that weigh less than 2 pounds (check your seed packet) can be spaced 12 inches apart.
Harvesting and Storage
Begin harvesting cabbage when the heads feel firm, using a sharp knife to cut the heads from the stem. Remove and compost rough outer leaves, and promptly refrigerate harvested heads. If cut high, many varieties will produce several smaller secondary heads from the roots and crown left behind.
Cabbage will store in the refrigerator for two weeks or more, and you can keep your fall crop in cool storage for several months. Clean cabbage carefully, because heads may harbor hidden insects.
Cabbage yield is generally about 1 pound per foot of row. For the spring crop, three cabbage plants per person is probably sufficient for fresh eating. Grow another four plants per person in fall if you plan to store your cabbage or make sauerkraut.
Cabbage is a biennial crop that produces seed in its second year, after it has been exposed to cold weather. Most commercial cabbage seed is grown in Washington state, where winters are mild enough to allow the survival of seedlings set out in late summer. These plants form only small, loose heads before blooming and producing seeds the following summer. In colder climates, growers dig cabbage plants and move them to a cool root cellar for winter, burying the plants’ roots in buckets of moist sawdust. The stored heads are trimmed and replanted in early spring. Isolation is often required to keep cabbage from crossing with its close cousins, so you should grow only one type of cabbage for seed in a given year. Cabbage seeds will keep for five years if stored under excellent conditions.
Pest and Disease Prevention Tips
- Tender cabbage seedlings may be felled in the night by soil-dwelling cutworms. To protect young seedlings, enclose their stems with stiff collars made from plastic cups, shallow cans or aluminum foil, pushed 1 inch into the soil.
- Leaf-eating caterpillars — including armyworms, cabbage loopers and velvety green cabbageworms — frequently damage cabbage leaves. In summer, brightly marked harlequin bugs and grasshoppers can devastate young plants. The best way to prevent all of these problems is to install floating row covers the day you transplant the seedlings. Learn more in The No-Spray Way to Protect Plants.
- Unless you have a heavy infestation, you can often keep plants healthy by watching them closely and handpicking pests. (Look closely — tiny green cabbageworms are very hard to see.) Biweekly sprays with a biological pesticide — Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) or spinosad — will control cabbageworms and other caterpillar-type cabbage pests. Handpick slugs and snails, which can often be found hiding on the undersides of the cabbage leaves closest to the ground.
- Cabbage plants that suddenly collapse may have been hit by root maggots (rice-sized fly larvae that feed on cabbage roots). You can deter fly larvae by pressing the soil down firmly when setting out the seedlings. Rotate cabbage-family crops to deter this pest. In areas where canola is grown, use row covers to escape these ever-present maggots.
Tips for Growing Cabbage
- Use cloches, row cover tunnels or other season-stretching devices to get your spring cabbage crop growing a few weeks early. In summer, use temporary shade covers after transplanting fall seedlings into hot summer soil.
- Experiment with varieties, which can make a huge difference in the success of your crop. Fast-growing cabbage that form small heads (see Cabbage at a Glance chart) are great for space-squeezed gardens.
- Give plants extra nitrogen just as small heads begin to form by drenching them with a liquid organic fertilizer.
- Heavy rain can cause almost-ready cabbage heads to split. Prevent this by using a sharp spade to sever roots on opposite sides of the plant before an expected rain.
In the Kitchen
Various types of slaw made from raw, chopped cabbage are popular accompaniments for seafood and barbecue. Cooked cabbage recipes number in the thousands, from crunchy stir-fries to slow-cooked braises. Tame strong-flavored cabbage by chopping and then blanching it for one minute before proceeding with your recipe. Include a few fennel seeds in the cooking liquid to reduce cabbage’s cooking aroma. Large outer leaves may be blanched and frozen for later use making cabbage rolls. Chopped cabbage can be blanched and frozen, or fermented into sauerkraut. (Read Got Cabbage? Make Sauerkraut! to learn how to make your own kraut.)
Cabbage is a good source of vitamins A and C. Red cabbage and green cabbage that has tight, white cores typically contain high levels of vitamin C, while dark outer leaves offer an abundance of vitamin A. Homemade, fermented sauerkraut (or refrigerated kraut that hasn’t been heat-processed) contains health-enhancing nutrients and bacteria.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.