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How To Grow Napa Cabbage In Your Beds

Napa cabbage is an excellent spring vegetable for gardeners because it is easy to grow and provides a large harvest of heads. It grows similarly to other brassica family plants, and it will be familiar to gardeners who have grown bok choy before. If you’re interested in learning how to grow Napa cabbage in your garden this spring, we can help!

This type of cabbage is commonly used in Asian cuisine, especially kimchi and stir-fry. It is a great vegetable to grow in either spring or fall, as it prefers cooler weather. If you haven’t tried this variety of cabbage before, you might want to consider adding it to your garden plan this year!

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Quick Care Guide

How to grow napa cabbage
Love good stir fry? Learn how to grow napa cabbage! Source: Seacoast Eat Local
Common Name(s)Napa cabbage, Chinese cabbage, celery cabbage
Scientific NameBrassica rapa subsp. pekinensis
Days to Harvest50-90 days, depending on the variety
LightFull sun to part shade, about 5 hours of sunlight each day
Water1 inch per week
SoilRich loamy soil, well-draining, with pH between 6.5 to 7
FertilizerCompost or composted manure and high-nitrogen organic fertilizers
PestsCabbage loopers, cabbage worms, flea beetles, root maggots
DiseasesLeaf spot, downy mildew, powdery mildew, black rot, clubroot

All About Napa Cabbage

6 week old napa cabbage
A six-week-old napa cabbage before the head has formed. Source: Farmer Mark

Napa cabbage, or Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis, is a member of the brassica family grown for its green leaves. It has an oblong body, with a dense bunching head. The flowers are yellow, but won’t appear unless you allow it to bolt and go to seed. 

Napa cabbage grows best either before temperatures have warmed up in early summer, or as they are cooling off in fall. It tastes similar to Romaine lettuce and is different from other types of cabbage because the head is tender and will wilt quickly. Napa cabbage has a sweeter flavor than traditional green cabbages, such as bok choy. If used in salads, it should be served immediately. However, its most popular use is in stir fry, kimchi, and dumplings.

Napa cabbage was originally from Beijing, China, but spread to Japan and Korea, where it remains popular. The name Napa comes from the Japanese language as the word “nappa” means the leaves of a vegetable used for food. Napa cabbage is also called Chinese cabbage or celery cabbage in some parts of the world.

Planting Chinese Cabbage

Napa cabbage seedlings
Each of these seedlings will produce a head of napa cabbage. Source: Suzies Farm

Start seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date in either spring or fall, planting seeds ¼ to ½ inch deep. When transplanting seedlings outdoors, be careful to not disturb the roots. Plan for spacing plants 12 to 18 inches apart, in rows that are at least 18 inches apart. You can sow seeds in spring directly into the ground as closely as 6 inches apart, and thin as they grow. It is also possible to grow in a large container. 

Care

Part of learning how to grow Chinese cabbage is learning the day-to-day care for the plant throughout its annual life cycle. Let’s talk about how you can care for Chinese cabbage in your garden. 

Sun and Temperature

Chinese cabbage prefers full sun or partial shade with 4-5 hours of sunlight each day. It grows best in zones 4 through 7 but can be grown during cool weather seasons in the spring and fall in zones 8-9. The heads form in cool temperatures that are above 45 degrees, but below 75 degrees, and they respond to the decreasing day length and cool temperatures in fall. If you start your seeds well before the last frost date, you can also successfully transplant seedlings in the weeks before summer.

Chinese cabbage will bolt and go to seed if it is consistently exposed to temperatures over 75 degrees. To prevent this bolt process, opt for cool season growing. If you start it outdoors before the last frost date has passed, add a floating row cover over young seedlings to protect them from temperatures below 45 degrees. 

Water and Humidity

Thick midrib on napa cabbage
The thick midrib of each leaf keeps it standing erect and transports water to the leaves. Source: Stacy Spensley

It’s best to water your plants early in the morning, but if you aren’t able to, the evening is the next best time. Chinese cabbage likes 1 inch of water per week, and consistent watering keeps the plant from going to seed in droughts.

Watering can be done in a variety of ways, from soaker hoses to clay olla pots. You can also hand water. Always keep the plants well-watered so they have consistent growth. Because napa cabbage needs consistent moisture, you might even consider drip irrigation on a timer. 

Soil

Chinese cabbage prefers a nice rich and loamy soil. It should also be well-drained so the roots are not in standing water. Napa cabbage does not prefer hard-packed clay soils or sandy soils. When planting, you should add compost or composted manure. If possible, amend the soil a few weeks before planting and then again when you plant or transplant the cabbage so the soil is rich and nutrient-dense. The best pH range for growth is between 6.0 and 7.0. 

Fertilizing

When growing Chinese cabbage, you should fertilize it regularly. Plan to amend your soil before planting, and once again at planting time. You should also regularly apply fertilizer or rich organic matter mid-season. Top dressing plants with compost or manure will promote continuous growth. 

For liquid fertilizers, Napa cabbage likes fish emulsion as it is a nitrogen-hungry plant. It also likes dry nitrogen sources such as alfalfa meal, fish meal, chicken manure, or blood meal. Don’t leave out the phosphorous or potassium entirely, though — phosphorous is especially beneficial for a healthy root system, and potassium helps with the general health of the plant. An organic slow-release granular fertilizer can work, provided that you supply a little extra nitrogen by means of one of the other methods above.

Pruning

You won’t need to prune Napa cabbage while it is growing, but you might want to peel away the tough outer leaves when harvesting. Don’t let it flower, since this means it is going to bolt to seed, and the plant’s energy will move into the flower stalk, turning the leaves tough and bitter.

Propagation

Propagation for Napa cabbage is primarily from seed. This is generally the recommended method, as you’ll get a healthier plant that way.

However, people have had success with getting the root-end of a Napa cabbage to develop new roots after it’s been harvested. Leave small amounts of the leaf attached to the root end and set it in a shallow bowl of water. Change the water daily. Within a few days, the roots should start to form, and you may even get a few more cabbage leaves growing up from the base of the new plant

Harvesting and Storing

Crosscut napa cabbage
This cross-cut cabbage reveals how the leaves form. Source: pinprick

Now that you know how to plant, grow, and care for your napa cabbage plant, let’s talk about how to harvest it at maturity. There are also plenty of ways to store your harvest so you can enjoy it over time! 

Harvesting

Napa cabbage is ready to harvest when the head is firm to the touch, and it is approximately 12 inches tall. Some varieties are as short as 6 inches, while others are as big as 20 inches tall! If you squeeze the heads, they should be firm. Harvest each head by cutting them at soil level, leaving the roots in the ground. You might also want to peel away several outside layers of green leaves to reveal the prized white and light yellow leaves underneath. 

If grown to collect seed, put a small paper bag over the seed pods in late summer. Secure it to the stem with twine, and allow the flower stalk to dry out before cutting. Once the seed pods are fully dry, you can break them to release the tiny seeds within.

Storing

You can store Napa cabbage heads in the refrigerator for about 4 weeks. You can also blanch heads and freeze them for up to four months. If you are storing a head of Chinese cabbage in the refrigerator, don’t wash the heads before storage. 

Napa cabbage can also be dehydrated or freeze-dried, but it is less palatable when it rehydrates later. If drying it, use it in soups or stews where its textural change isn’t notable.

Troubleshooting

Napa cabbage flowers
Napa cabbage flowers are bright yellow and cheery. Source: osanpo

Now, let’s explore some of the problems you might have when growing Napa cabbage. 

Growing Problems

If your seeds don’t sprout, be sure they are planted less than ½ inch deep. A good rule of thumb is to sow seeds at about twice the depth of the seed’s width. Since cabbage seeds are fairly thin and small, ¼” might be a better depth to speed germination.

In hot and dry weather, the napa cabbage will bolt and go to seed quickly. This means that the plant puts its energy into forming seeds, and the leaves will become bitter and undesirable to eat. To prevent bolting, keep cabbage well-watered, and start it at an appropriate time in spring in your region to avoid hot weather. Conversely, try to plant so you can harvest before your first frost. Chinese cabbage prefers cool and mild weather. 

If your cabbage struggles to form heads, this may be caused by a lack of water. Water your plants regularly and consistently to get good head development. You should also make sure you are growing in rich soil, and have amended it with rich organic matter so that your plants can have consistent growth throughout the growing season, which will result in larger and firmer heads. Applying a nitrogen fertilizer may also help with foliage growth.

Pests

Napa cabbage suffers from the same pest pressure as other members of the cabbage family. 

Flea beetles chew holes in leaves, especially young seedlings. Use floating row covers to protect young plants. Diatomaceous earth or neem oil can control these to a degree. If these don’t work, you may need to use a stronger organic option such as spinosad or pyrethrin.

Cabbage worms and cabbage loopers begin life as small caterpillars that eat leaves. Start treatment with milder organic methods, such as scraping the eggs or removing caterpillars by hand. If you’re still finding green moth larvae climbing around on your plants, use a Bacillus thuringiensis spray for treatment.

You can prevent cabbage root maggots by keeping your garden clean and debris-free. This will ensure there is no habitat for the maggots to live in. Cover young plants with floating row covers, and mulch at the base of more mature ones to prevent the flies from laying their eggs in the soil. If a severe outbreak of root maggots occurs, a pyrethrin soil drench can reduce their population.

Diseases

Chinese cabbage can be susceptible to leaf spot, clubroot, and black rot. 

Leaf spot is usually treatable with organic options like liquid copper fungicide or biofungicides. 

When dealing with clubroot or black rot, both of which are fungal in origin, make sure you aren’t overwatering and that excess water freely drains from the soil. Plants suffering from clubroot or black rot should have the root fully removed and disposed of once you’ve harvested your cabbage. You should also practice good crop rotation by never planting Napa cabbage in the same location where you recently planted other Brassicas. 

To control powdery mildew, be sure to water early in the morning so the sun can dry the leaves of the plant during the day. Late-night watering of foliage may promote the growth of mildew as temperatures are cooler and plants may remain wet throughout the night. A better option would be to water at the base of the plant with a soaker hose to keep the foliage dry.

Downy mildew is another common issue but can be prevented with regular applications of neem oil, as can powdery mildew. If a large outbreak of either mildew sets in, use a liquid copper fungicide to treat the plants.

Frequently Asked Questions

Napa cabbages growing
A tight cluster of napa cabbages growing. Source: anselor

Q: Can you regrow Napa cabbage?

A: Yes! If you place the base of your cabbage into a shallow bowl of water. You may be able to regrow some of the leaves, but it’s more likely you’ll grow new roots.

Q: How long does it take to grow Chinese cabbage?

A: It takes about 50 to 80 days. 

Q: Does Chinese cabbage regrow after cutting?

A: No. Once you cut the head off at soil level, the plant will not grow back.


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