Growing Cabbage: A Guide For Great Heads
Love fresh cabbage? So do we. Growing cabbage isn't difficult and supplies you with big heads of nutrition-dense produce. We'll show you how!
Cabbage is one of those old-school crops that is easy to grow. It’s resistant to the cold, highly nutritious, and easily cooked into a variety of dishes. Growing cabbage in your garden is a great way to learn how to grow food in your garden, as it’s easy enough for beginners but can challenge even experienced gardeners. Plus, the impressive heads are eye-catchers, filling up garden beds nicely.
Due to its long history of cultivation, cabbage varieties have been adapted to grow year-round in diverse climates. Cabbages were a staple crop for peasants in Northern Europe. With its cold tolerance and excellent shelf life, cabbage was a safety net for rural farmers.
Cabbages are rich in vitamin C, calcium, and phytochemicals. The purple varieties especially are high in anthocyanins (a compound found in purple produce such as blueberries and beets), which have been shown to possess cancer-fighting properties. Not only are they nutritious, but growing cabbage also has the added benefit that it can develop new growth after harvesting.
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- NaturesGoodGuys Beneficial Nematodes
- Southern Ag Liquid Copper Fungicide
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Quick Care Guide
|Common Name(s)||Cabbage, savoy cabbage|
|Scientific Name||Brassica oleracea var. capitata|
|Days to Harvest||60-110 days depending on weather and variety|
|Light||Full sun to partial shade|
|Water:||Consistent watering, about 1” weekly|
|Soil||Sandy or loamy soil with lots of organic matter|
|Fertilizer||Fertilize 2 weeks after transplanting and again a month later|
|Pests||Aphids, cabbage loopers, cabbage worms, flea beetles, cabbage maggots, cutworms, birds|
|Diseases||Clubroot, black leg, black rot, alternaria, pythium, wirestem, downy mildew, fusarium yellows|
All About Cabbage
The cabbage was domesticated to its current form in Germany. You can still find wild cabbage in Western Europe. Brassica oleracea var. capitata is a close relative of other brassicas such as kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and more. These are all part of the same species, but different varieties.
Cabbage heads resemble large, compact lettuce heads. The outer leaves fall back with a similar effect but are stiffer and more corrugated. Depending on your preferences, special circumstances, and climate you’ll want to grow cabbage varieties that are right for you.
The main cabbage varieties can be organized by their time to maturity: early maturing green cabbage varieties (60-80 days to harvest), mid-season varieties (80-90 days to harvest), and late varieties (90-110 days to harvest). Depending on your region, you can grow one or multiple forms for a consistent harvest.
Some notable varieties include green savoy cultivars like “Melissa” and “Best-of-all”. There are both red and green ball cabbage varieties as well. In the green ball cabbages, you have a wide selection ranging from early-season “Earliana” to heirloom staples like “Brunswick”. For red or purple cultivars, check out “Salad Delight”, “Ruby Perfection”, or “Integro”.
Don’t mix up the ball-head types with Napa cabbage, aka Chinese cabbage; they’re a different species with different growing habits. They’re similar in many regards but just different enough to merit their own article.
Cabbage is a cool-weather vegetable and will bolt if the weather starts to get too warm for it.
In areas where the weather is cool year-round, start your cabbage seeds indoors about 4-6 weeks before the last frost, and plant them out once the danger of frost is gone. For those in warmer climates, start cabbage in the late summer so that you can get a crop in before winter’s chill sets in. If your climate often has mild winters, you may be able to grow cabbage all winter long!
When your cabbage has four to five true leaves, it’s time to plant them out. But where is the best place to grow cabbage? Ideally, you’ll need full sun conditions. But be careful if you’re in a warm climate, as too much sun may cause them to develop a bitter flavor. Aim for a location where they get a little shade during unexpected heatwaves, but have enough bright light to thrive.
Planting cabbage in containers is an option, but these can grow to be rather large plants. Be sure you prepare for a container that can support the size of your cabbage foliage and a decently-large taproot. 5 to 10 gallon grow bags are great to grow cabbage in. We recommend Root Pouch grow bags if you go that route. You can also plant seeds in raised beds, allowing enough space for them to grow. 20-24 inches apart is ideal in most cases.
If you’re going to plant cabbage in the ground, keep your rows 24-36 inches apart, with 20-24 inches between your cabbage plants. If desired, and your climate is good, you can stagger your cabbage planting, starting a new batch every week or two. Make sure you have enough time for everything to be ready to harvest before the warm weather comes!
Cabbages do best when you anticipate their needs. But what are those needs? Let’s explore them in more depth.
Sun and Temperature
Grow cabbage during the cooler months of the year, when there are shorter days but milder temperatures. They like to receive full sun but can turn bitter if exposed to too much heat. Aim for 6-8 hours of sunlight per day. Able to grow virtually everywhere, you can plant cabbage in USDA zones 1-9.
Ideal temperatures are between 55-65 degrees, but your cabbage can tolerate temperatures down to 20 degrees. When the weather dips below that level, use a cold frame or frost blanket to offer protection. Similarly, if warmer weather threatens, provide some protection with shade cloth.
Water and Humidity
To grow cabbage well, you’ll need the soil to stay consistently moist. Growing cabbage requires about an inch of water per week, but you can opt to water less if you’re getting regular rainfall.
Try to water your cabbage at its base using a soaker hose, and avoid getting the leaves wet. Watering in the morning is a good strategy if you have to use a hose, because it enables stray droplets to dry before the sun gets intense.
Too much water can cause your cabbage heads to split, but too little will cause the leaves to become thick and tough. It takes a little practice to get it down to the right timing when you grow cabbage!
A heavy feeder, grow cabbage in a well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter. It should hold moisture well, but shouldn’t pool or turn to mud. Loamy or sandy soils are a good base, provided you work in at least 2 inches of compost or aged horse manure or cow manure before planting.
Try to keep the soil pH between 6.0-7.0. If you’re not sure of the pH of your soil, use a soil test kit to get a good estimated range. You can also opt for professional soil testing.
Top-dress around your plants with additional compost as needed. You can also mulch the top to keep the soil moist.
As mentioned before, cabbage plants are heavy feeders. While they do like a decent amount of potassium and phosphorous for good root growth, they’re predominantly foliage plants, and as such need quite a bit of nitrogen.
When you grow cabbage, start them off two weeks after transplanting with a balanced fertilizer like a 10-10-10 formula. You can use either a liquid or a slow-release fertilizer, although the slow release is our preferred choice here.
About a month after that initial fertilizing, add a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Alfalfa meal or blood meal are both excellent options when scratched lightly into the soil around the plant. This should provide enough to keep your heads going when accompanied by compost and the initial feeding.
Pruning isn’t strictly necessary when you grow cabbage. You can remove outer leaves that have been damaged by pests but try to maintain enough to keep the cabbage head protected.
Since it’s a single-season plant for most people, cabbage seeds are the best way to propagate. Unless it bolts due to excessive heat, the cabbage plant usually goes to seed in its second year, so most people never see viable seed from their plants.
Plant your cabbage seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost. If you’re growing cabbage for the fall, plant 4-6 weeks before the date you want to transplant into the garden. You can direct-sow, but will need to thin them down to one plant every 20-24” as they mature.
Harvesting and Storing Cabbage
Once your cabbage head has formed and grown it is time for the most exciting part: harvesting! You’ve spent weeks nurturing and caring for this plant, now it’s time to enjoy the bounty.
To tell if your cabbage is ready to pick, gently squeeze the head. If it feels firm throughout, it’s time to harvest cabbage. If it has some give, it’s not fully formed yet. You can leave fully-formed heads on the plant for short periods of time, so if you’re overwhelmed with cabbage, you can wait for a week or two as long as the weather remains cool.
To harvest cabbage, use a knife to cut the head from its stem above the first spread cabbage leaves. If you are careful with your cuts and do not split the main stem, you may get smaller secondary heads over time.
Once your plant has stopped producing, you can cut it off at soil level and allow the roots to decompose, adding more organic material to your bed. If the plant has experienced pest issues like root maggots, remove the root as well to dispose of any pests within the root tissue. Do not compost pest or disease-ridden plants.
To store your cabbage in the refrigerator or a root cellar, strip away any loose cabbage leaves and trim the stem short. Wrap the dry, unwashed head in paper towels and place it in a plastic bag you’ve poked some holes in. Place it in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Use within a few weeks, checking occasionally to make sure it hasn’t started to wilt.
Longer-term storage in the freezer is possible. To do this, remove any yellowed or wilted leaves from the outside of the head and cut it into quarters, leaving the stem intact. Blanch each quarter for 90 seconds in boiling water, then drop it into an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Once blanched, allow the cabbage to drain in a colander with the cut sides facing down for at least an hour. Pat the head segments dry and place on a baking sheet to freeze, then transfer to a freezer bag to store.
While cabbage plants are a historically staple crop, you may encounter some problems, pests, and diseases that need intervention to correct. Let’s discuss some of the most common issues.
While you grow cabbage, if you find your plants aren’t heading up properly, there’s a few potential reasons for this. Damage to the main stem from pests can be one issue. A lack of consistent watering is another. Finally, too cold or too hot conditions can cause the plant to not form a head properly. Make sure your plant’s intact and that it’s receiving the right amount of water at the right temperature.
If your cabbage heads begin to crack, this is usually caused by a sudden influx of water after a long dry spell. If the cabbage had already been developing a smaller head, the larger supply of water can cause the plant to push water to the head, and the leaves don’t have time to expand. Avoid this by maintaining consistent soil moisture.
Most brassicas are susceptible to nutrient deficiencies that can cause damage to the plant. Cabbage is no exception in this case, as a boron deficiency can cause a breakdown and decay of the pithy center of cabbage stems. Ensure your fertilizer includes micronutrients as well as the main NPK needs for your plant to prevent this problem.
Aphids are tiny insects that feed on the plant’s sap. They can be white, green, or brown in color and often clump together, leaving a sticky residue on the plant. To fight off the aphids you can blast them off your plants with a strong stream of water, spray the plants with a neem oil solution, or introduce beneficial insects that feast on the aphids, such as ladybugs.
Cabbage loopers and cabbage worms are other cabbage pests that can inflict an enormous amount of damage on your cabbage plants. Particularly when the plants are young, these sneaky pests can eat their way to the stems in a few hours. Both cabbage loopers and cabbage worms are hard to spot on green cabbage types as they’re green in color, but they’re easier to see on purple or red ones.
Encourage the presence of predatory wasps in your garden for natural defense. You can also spray your growing cabbage heads with bacillus thuringiensis (BT), a naturally occurring bacteria that produces a protein that kills loopers.
Flea beetles make their appearance in the spring and will eat small holes in the young plants. They cannibalize the leaves of your plants and can destroy both seedlings and mature cabbage heads. Protect your seedlings and start seeds indoors or under row covers if direct sowing outside. Pyrethrin or spinosad sprays will kill them off.
The cabbage root fly lays its eggs at the base of the plant and as the larvae emerge, they make their way into the soil to eat the roots. If there are enough larvae, these small, white cabbage maggots will destroy the root system and kill the plant. Use floating row covers to prevent the flies away from your crops. Sticky traps can catch and kill the adult flies, and beneficial nematodes will deal with maggot larvae.
If you find your young seedlings wilted, laying on the ground, and severed from the base, you’ve probably got cutworms. These caterpillars like to snip off seedlings at their base. Wrap the base of your seedlings in aluminum foil or toilet paper tubes to protect them. BT spray is also effective.
Birds are particularly active in the spring and will eat seedling plants. Protect your young plants and start seeds indoors or by using protective netting when you plant seeds outside.
Virtually all cabbage diseases have a direct link to humidity or soil moisture.
There are three diseases that have no real viable treatments to look out for when you’re growing cabbage. Clubroot, black leg, and black rot are all potentially fatal to your cabbage plants. Black leg is caused by a fungus, black rot by a bacterium, and clubroot is caused by a single-celled cercospora.
For all of these diseases, a combination of moist conditions and warm temperatures sets the stage for the pathogen to thrive, and all three can live in the soil. Use certified disease-free seed and non-infected soil to avoid these diseases. A slightly higher soil pH of 6.8-7.0 can also prevent clubroot in some cases.
Damping off can be caused by alternaria or pythium fungi. Alternaria can also cause a blight on the leaves, similar to a leaf spot disease. In the case of alternaria, treatment of impacted leaves can be done by applying liquid copper fungicide. Pythium is soilborne and can live for years in the soil, so is much harder to treat; it can also cause root rot or other diseases. A mycofungicide may help reduce pythium formation.
Wirestem can cause seedling collapses that can be misidentified as damping off. Caused by a fungus, this is more common in plants that sprout in warm and humid conditions. Prevention is the best defense, as this has no reliable treatments. Removal of the entire plant is sometimes necessary.
Downy mildew is a common annoyance, but entirely treatable. Mild outbreaks of this leaf fungus can be treated with neem oil application on all leaf surfaces. Severe cases may require copper-based fungicides but will also usually recover.
Finally, we have fusarium yellows. Caused by fusarium fungi, this causes leaf yellowing and defoliation, twisted stems, and stunting or seedling death. Many cultivars are specifically bred to be resistant to this soil-dwelling disease, which has no reliable treatment. Some mycofungicides can slow fusarium formation, and you may have to remove the entire plant to prevent its spread.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Does cabbage regrow after cutting?
A: Yes! If you leave a few outer leaves on the stem the plant will form mini cabbages, called cabbage sprouts. Harvesting all the sprouts except for one encourages the remaining sprout to form into a tiny head.
Q: How long does it take for a cabbage head to form?
A: This depends on the variety, but can take 60-110 days to grow cabbage.
Q: Why do cabbage heads split?
A: Cabbage heads split due to irregular watering. The damage is purely cosmetic and they remain completely edible, but make sure to harvest and use quickly.
Q: How do you keep cabbage from bolting?
A: This occurs when the weather is too warm for the cabbage. You can prune the forming buds off to encourage the plant to keep growing, but it may not stop the bolting process once begun. Making sure you have the right temperature range during your growing season is best.
Q: What is the best month to plant cabbage?
A: Plant it in July for a fall crop, or 4 weeks before the last frost for growing cabbage as a spring crop.
Q: How many heads of cabbage do you get from each plant?
A: You can get up to 6, as subheads form around the middle cabbage.
Q: What should not be planted near cabbage?
A: Keep your beans, tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries away when you grow cabbage. These tend to compete with your cabbage for nutrients.
Q: Does cabbage need a lot of water?
A: Grow cabbage a moderate amount at about 1 to 2 inches per week.