Tony O’Neill, gardener and author of the popular “Composting Masterclass” and “Your First Vegetable Garden,” combines lifelong passion and expert knowledge to simplify the art of gardening. His mission? Helping you cultivate a thriving garden. More on Tony O’Neill
Cabbage is a cool-season vegetable that can be grown in spring or fall when temperatures are typically around the sixties (15 -18°C).
Cabbage needs organically rich, well-draining soil and plenty of water to grow well. It also needs full sun and protection from pests and diseases. Cabbage comes in different varieties that have different maturities and harvesting times.
Cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is a low-calorie vegetable from the Brassica genus of plant and is available in various colors and shapes and can be eaten raw or cooked. Cabbage is rich in vitamin C, vitamin K, folate, and fiber, which can benefit your health in several ways.
Additional benefits of cabbage include supporting digestion, improving heart health, and reducing inflammation. The folate in cabbage is especially beneficial to pregnant moms.
Homegrown cabbages have many advantages over limited store-bought options, including better taste, more nutrition, and environmental benefits. Because homegrown cabbages can be harvested at their peak, they offer the best of what they’ve got to offer—plenty.
Selecting the Right Cabbage Variety
Cabbage is a versatile vegetable offering many different types, colors, and shapes. Some of the most popular cabbage varieties include green cabbages, red and purple cabbages, savoy cabbages, and Napa cabbages.
Green cabbage is the most common and widely adapted type of cabbage, and it has smooth, flat leaves that form tight heads. Some popular green cabbage varieties are ‘Farao,’ ‘Tiara,’ ‘Typhoon,’ ‘Tropic Giant,’ ‘Tendersweet,’ and ‘Charleston Wakefield.’
These varieties have different maturity dates, head sizes, heat tolerance, and disease resistance. You can grow green cabbage for fresh eating, cooking, or fermenting.
The variety has a mild flavor and crisp texture and can be used for salads, coleslaw, soups, stews, or sauerkraut.
Red cabbage has purple-red leaves that add color and antioxidants to your dishes. It is similar to green cabbage in terms of growth habits and use, but it tends to be cold hardy, and slower to mature.
Some recommended red cabbage varieties are ‘Ruby Perfection,’ ‘Buscaro,’ ‘Omero,’ and ‘Mammoth Red Rock.’ These varieties have different head shapes, weights, flavors, and storage qualities.
Red cabbages are rich in antioxidants, take longer to mature than green cabbage, and can be eaten raw, cooked, or pickled.
Savoy cabbage has crinkly leaves that form loose heads. It has a mild flavor, and a tender texture, making it ideal for salads, stir-fries, stuffing, braising, or sautéing.
Savoy cabbage is more resistant to frost than other types of cabbage. You can try savoy cabbage varieties Alcosa,’ ‘Famosa,’ ‘Deadon,’ and ‘Melissa.’ These varieties have different colors, sizes, shapes, and harvest times.
Napa cabbage is a Chinese cabbage with a more tender texture and slightly sweeter taste than standard green or red cabbages. It is widely used in East Asian cuisine, especially in kimchi, soups, salads, stir-fries, dumplings and noodles.
Napa cabbage has light-green leaves with prominent white veins and an oblong shape. It grows best in the cool season with short days and must be harvested before it reaches the flowering stage.
Choosing the best variety for your garden
While cabbage can be grown in different seasons and climates, not all varieties suit every garden. To choose the best cabbage variety for your garden, you must consider several factors, such as your growing zone, soil type, space availability, harvest time, and preferred use.
Preparing the Soil for Cabbage
The cabbage plant grows best in well-drained, fertile soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.5. Cabbage needs sun exposure and consistent soil moisture to produce crisp and juicy heads.
Adding compost to the soil before planting can improve its organic matter content and nutrient availability. To avoid pest and disease problems, cabbage should not be planted in succession in the same bed as other Brassica crops, such as broccoli or cauliflower.
Soil pH and Nutrient Requirements
Cabbage needs fertile soil with plenty of organic matter and nutrients to produce large, healthy heads. The soil pH should be neutral (between 6.5 and 7.5), but cabbages, unlike potatoes, can tolerate slightly more alkaline soil.
Cabbage also requires adequate micronutrients such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc for optimal growth. Some varieties do well with added Boron, especially in soil low in organic matter and with a high pH level.
To prepare the soil for cabbage plants, it is recommended to test it before planting and amend it according to the test results. Compost can be added to enrich the soil with organic matter and nutrients.
A balanced fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, can be applied before planting and every three to four weeks until heads form. Cabbage plants should be watered regularly to keep the soil moist and help them absorb nutrients from the soil.
Soil Texture and Drainage
Soil texture and drainage levels are important factors that affect plant growth and health. Soil texture refers to the relative proportions of soil sand, silt, and clay particles.
Soil drainage refers to how well water moves through the soil and away from plant roots. Poor soil texture and drainage can cause problems such as waterlogging, nutrient deficiency, root rot, and erosion.
There are several ways to improve soil texture and drainage levels, depending on the type and condition of the soil. Some standard practices are:
- They add organic matter, such as compost, manure, or peat moss, to the soil. Organic matter improves soil structure by binding soil particles into aggregates that allow air and water to circulate. Organic matter also provides nutrients and beneficial microorganisms for plants.
- Planting in raised beds or mounds elevates the soil above the surrounding level. Raised beds or mounds improve drainage by allowing excess water to run off more easily. They also prevent waterlogging by keeping plant roots away from saturated soils.
- They install subsurface tile or vertical drains in areas with high water tables or shallow bedrock. Tile drains are perforated pipes buried below the soil surface that collect and divert excess water away from plant roots. Vertical drains are gravel-filled holes that allow water to drain vertically below the root zone.
Plant this cool-season vegetable crop in spring or fall. They need full sun, moist and well-drained soil, and neutral to alkaline soil. You can extend your growing season by growing seedlings indoors or planting seeds in situ if soil temperatures are above 50°F/10°C.
H3: Starting Seeds Indoors
To start cabbage seeds indoors for a summer harvest, sow them 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Use pots or flats filled with moist seed-starting mix and sow the seeds ¼ to ½ inch (6 – 12mm) deep.
Keep the pots in a warm place (around 77°F/25°C) until germination, which usually takes 5 to 8 days. Then move them to a sunny window or under grow lights and keep them watered and fertilized.
Transplant the seedlings outdoors when 4 to 6 inches tall and after daytime temperatures reach 50°F/10°C. You can also harden them off by exposing them gradually to outdoor conditions for a week before planting.
To ensure enough air circulation around the plants, avoiding the risk of pathogen spread, space them 12 to 24 inches apart in rows 24 to 42 inches apart.
Direct Sowing Seeds
Direct sowing cabbage seeds is a simple and cost-effective way to grow this nutritious vegetable in your garden. You can directly sow cabbage seeds two weeks before the last frost in spring or 12 to 14 weeks before the first frost in fall.
Choose a sunny location with well-drained soil enriched with compost or manure. Plant the seeds a quarter inch deep and two inches apart in rows about three feet apart.
Keep the soil moist but not soggy until the seeds germinate, which should take about a week. Thin out the seedlings to leave one plant every 12 to 24 inches, depending on the variety.
Protect your cabbage plants from pests such as aphids, cabbage worms, and cutworms using row covers, organic sprays, or companion plants.
Caring for Cabbage Plants
Growing cabbages is easy if you get your timing right, ensure the soil drains well, and plant where the cabbages will get enough sunlight.
Cabbage is a vegetable that needs regular watering to grow well and produce healthy heads. The amount and frequency of watering depend on several factors, such as the weather, soil type, and plant size.
Generally, cabbage needs about 1 to 1.5 inches (25 to 32mm) of water per week, which is equivalent to about 25 gallons (91 liters) of water per week for a 10-foot (3.6m) row.
However, cabbage may need more water than usual in hot and dry conditions. To check if your cabbage needs water, insert your finger into the soil up to your knuckle. If it feels dry, then it is time to water.
Watering should be done in the morning or early evening when temperatures are cooler and there is less evaporation. Watering from the base of the plant and avoiding wetting the leaves can help prevent diseases and pests.
Fertilizing Your Cabbage
Fertilizing your cabbage is vital for optimal growth and quality. Cabbage is a heavy feeder that requires a lot of nutrients, especially nitrogen, to produce large and firm heads.
There are different types and schedules of fertilizer application that you can use depending on your soil condition, preference, and availability.
I prefer using organic fertilizer, such as compost, manure, or tea. Organic fertilizer improves the soil structure and provides slow-release nutrients that feed the plants throughout the season.
You can apply organic fertilizer before planting by mixing it into the top 6 inches of soil at 2 to 4 inches per 100 square feet. You can also side-dress your cabbage plants with organic fertilizer every two to three weeks during the growing season by spreading it around the base of the plants.
Whichever type of fertilizer you choose, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and avoid over-fertilizing your cabbage plants. Over-fertilizing can cause excessive leaf growth, reduced head formation, and split or cracked heads.
Also, consistently water your cabbage plants to help them absorb nutrients from the soil.
Mulching and Weed Control
Mulching covers the soil surface with organic or inorganic materials to improve soil and plant health. Mulching has many benefits for weed control and soil health. Some of the benefits are:
- Mulch suppresses weed growth by blocking light and preventing weed seeds from germinating.
- Mulch conserves soil moisture by reducing evaporation and water use by weeds. This helps plants to grow better and longer.
- Mulch moderates soil temperature by keeping it cooler in summer and warmer in winter. This improves plant growth and extends the blooming season of some plants.
- Mulch adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil as it decomposes. This enhances soil fertility, structure, and microbial activity.
Mulching is an effective and environmentally friendly way to control weeds and improve soil health. Different mulches, such as bark, leaves, straw, grass clippings, and plastic, are available.
Each type has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on the situation. The general rule is to apply a layer of 2 to 4 inches of mulch around plants or over bare soil. Leaf mold is an excellent organic option as it improves soil biodiversity without placing a nitrogen demand on it.
Protecting Cabbage from Pests and Diseases
Unfortunately, we’re not the only fans of the Brassica family (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, radishes, and others). The risk management strategies for the Cole Crops and Brassica Leafy Greens (EPA Group 5) are all similar.
Common Cabbage Pests
Some of the common cabbage pests to look out for
- Cabbage worms are green or grey caterpillars that feed on the leaves and create ragged holes. They can be controlled by spraying with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) or using cardboard collars around the plants.
- Cutworms: These are brown or grey caterpillars that cut off the stems of young plants near the soil level. They can be prevented by removing debris and rotating crops.
- Root maggots are white maggots that tunnel into the roots and cause wilting and stunting. They can be avoided by rotating crops.
- Flea beetles: Small, shiny beetles that jump when disturbed and make tiny holes in the leaves. They can be repelled by using aluminum foil under the plants.
- Aphids are green, red-black, or white insects that suck sap from the leaves and cause curling and yellowing. They also excrete honeydew that attracts ants and fungi. They can be removed by spraying with insecticidal soap or using natural predators like ladybugs.
- Diamondback moth caterpillar: This green caterpillar has a diamond-shaped pattern on its back that feeds on the leaves and makes small holes. It also spins cocoons on the leaves. It can be controlled by intercropping mustard with cabbage.
- Whitefly: These tiny insects suck sap from the leaves and excrete honeydew that attracts fungal growth. To control whitefly infestations, use yellow sticky traps to monitor their population, spray insecticidal soap or neem oil to kill them on contact, or release natural predators such as ladybugs or lacewings.
To identify and control cabbage pests effectively, it is vital to monitor the plants regularly for signs of damage and infestation, use appropriate cultural practices like sanitation, crop rotation, and resistant varieties, and apply biological, physical, or chemical measures as needed.
Preventing and Treating Cabbage Diseases
Some of the most common cabbage diseases to look out for include:
- Black rot: This bacterial disease causes yellow to brown lesions on the leaf margins that eventually wilt and die. To prevent black rot, use disease-free seeds and transplants, rotate crops, remove infected plants and weeds, and avoid overhead irrigation.
- Clubroot: This fungal disease causes swollen and distorted roots that reduce water and nutrient uptake. To prevent clubroot, use resistant varieties, lime the soil to raise pH above 6.5, rotate crops for at least four years, and avoid moving soil from infected areas.
- Mosaic virus: This viral disease causes mottled yellow and green patterns on the leaves that reduce photosynthesis and yield. To prevent the mosaic virus, control aphids and other insect vectors that spread the virus, remove infected plants and weeds and use virus-free seeds.
- Downy mildew is caused by a water mold that infects the leaves and stems of cabbage plants, producing white fluffy growths on the lower surface of the leaves.
- Powdery mildew is caused by a fungus that forms white powdery patches on the upper surface of the leaves.
- Leaf spots can be caused by different species of bacteria or fungi that create small to large brown or purple spots on the leaves.
These diseases can reduce the yield and quality of cabbage crops and spread easily by wind, water, insects, or contaminated seeds.
To prevent or control these diseases, it is crucial to practice good sanitation, crop rotation, weed control, proper irrigation (avoid overhead sprayers), and the use of resistant varieties.
Harvesting and Storing Cabbage
If harvested and stored correctly, cabbage is a durable nutritious crop. As mentioned earlier, some varieties store better than others. As a point of interest, cabbage seeds can remain fertile for up to 5 years.
Signs of a Mature Cabbage
Harvesting it at the right time is essential to enjoy the best flavor and quality of cabbage. The leading indicator of cabbage maturity is the firmness of the head. You can squeeze the head gently with your hand to check if it is solid and tight. If it feels soft or loose, it needs more time to grow.
The head size may vary depending on the variety and growing conditions, but a mature cabbage head should generally be about 6 to 10 inches in diameter. Of course, if you opt for a giant, the record is 138.25 pounds (62.71kg).
To harvest cabbage, you need to check if the heads are firm and mature, which usually takes 4 to 6 months after planting, depending on the variety.
You can harvest them when they reach your desired size, but avoid leaving them too long as they may split open.
To cut the cabbage, use a sharp, sterilized knife and slice through the stem at the lowest point possible, leaving some loose outer leaves attached to protect the head from drying out.
You can also leave some large leaves on the stem if you want it to produce more sprouts later. Discard any heads with signs of disease or insect damage, such as brown spots, holes, or curled leaves.
Storing Cabbage for Longevity
Depending on how you plan to use it, you can store cabbage whole or cut in the fridge or freezer or even ferment it.
The general rule is to keep cabbage cold and moist and avoid exposing it to air or light that can cause oxidation and spoilage. Some of the best practices for storing cabbage are:
- Store whole cabbage heads in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of your fridge for up to two months. Do not wash or cut the cabbage until ready to use it.
- Store cut cabbage pieces in a separate plastic bag with a damp paper towel wrapped around them for up to three days. Cut away any discolored or dried parts before using.
- Freeze cabbage wedges after blanching them in boiling water for 90 seconds and shocking them in ice water. Dry and flash-freeze them on a baking sheet before transferring them to a freezer-safe bag. Frozen cabbage can last up to one year.
- Ferment cabbage by shredding it and adding salt. Pack it tightly into a glass jar and cover it with an airlock lid. Store it in a cool, dark place for several weeks until it turns into sauerkraut or kimchi. Fermented cabbage can last for several months in the fridge.
FAQs on The Ultimate Guide to Growing Cabbage
What are the secrets to growing cabbage?
The secrets to growing cabbage include planting in organically rich, well-draining soil, providing plenty of water and full sun, and protecting against pests and diseases. Cabbage also benefits from crop rotation and choosing the right variety for your location and climate. Proper care and attention to detail can result in a successful cabbage harvest.
How do you make cabbage grow faster?
To make cabbage grow faster, plant it in organically rich soil that drains well and ensures it receives plenty of water and sunlight. Proper fertilization and timely pest control can also help speed up growth. Also, choosing the right cabbage variety and planting at the appropriate time can increase growth.
What is the best fertilizer for cabbage?
The best fertilizer for cabbage is high in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, with a ratio of approximately 3-1-2. Cabbage also benefits from additional nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Organic options include compost, manure, and bone meal. Applying fertilizer evenly and avoiding over-fertilizing is important, leading to excessive leaf growth and delayed head development.
Cabbage is a super nutritious vegetable that is easy to grow if you watch soil temperatures and moisture levels and provide adequate light (sun). While pests can be problematic, row covers and inviting beneficial insects into your garden can help manage these.
There is no way to know how much better a homegrown vegetable tastes until you’ve experienced it. Please take my word; nothing on the supermarket shelf can taste as good or contain as many nutrients as the vegetables you grow in your garden.