How to Grow Cabbage

fully grown cabbages in garden outside

Treehugger / K. Dave

Cabbage is so much more than a familiar, pale green ball that is shredded to make sauerkraut. Every variety leafs out from a central core and folds its leaves around each other to form a rosette or head. Yet there are plenty of differences between the types; cabbage comes in different hues, shapes, and textures, including frilly, deep purple, tender, and crinkly varietals. Banish all thoughts of bland, fast-food sides of coleslaw, and try a broader menu of cool-season veggies. Below is a complete guide to growing cabbage yourself.

How to Plant Cabbage

Timing is everything. This cool-weather crop can be started in late summer for a fall harvest. Ahead of spring, start seeds indoors to be planted out as soon as all chance of frost has passed. The mature plants can even withstand a touch of frost, but the new seedlings can’t.

Growing From Seed

leather-lined gardening glove holds cabbage seeds in palm before planting in soil

Treehugger / K. Dave

Cabbage seeds germinate at around 70 degrees F, but they grow best in cooler weather. Cabbage plants can take from 60 to 200 days to mature. To calculate the in-ground planting date for a fall harvest, use the number of days to harvest to count backwards from projected early frost dates. For example, if the first frost is projected for December 15th and the plant requires 100 days to harvest, plant around September 5th. Likewise, time your indoor planting so you can have a spring harvest before warm weather sets in. For Minnesota, that means seed for fall in July, while in the Central Valley of California, direct seeding gets off to a good start later in fall.  

Seeds should be planted at a depth of ¼-½ inch and kept moist until the first leaves appear. Indoors, there is no need for a heat mat, but keep them under grow lights. If seeding directly, space seeds about 18 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart. Seedlings planted outdoors in harsh weather may need protection such as a row cover while they are tender and will take a little longer to reach maturity. In case of hot weather, a 50% shade cloth can protect young plants from sunburn.

Growing From a Starter

Gradually “harden off” seedlings started indoors by bringing them outdoors for an hour a day at first, increasing their outdoor time little by little until they are big enough to transplant, with several sets of true leaves, and the temperature is right for planting.

Cabbage Plant Care

large green cabbages with yellowed leaves grow in outside garden

Treehugger / K. Dave

Cabbage, like other cool-season crops, faces different challenges than summer plants, and conditions change as the season grows warmer or colder.

Light

Cabbages appreciate full sunlight, but tender young plants should be protected from sunburn in warmer weather.

Soil and Nutrients

While cabbage isn’t fussy about soil, it is good to use soil with sufficient drainage. Avoid locations with a shallow hardpan or compacted soil. The cabbage has a short taproot with a lot of lateral roots, so bear in mind that it needs vertical and horizontal space. Adding compost can improve soil texture. Since the leaves of the plant are the part we eat, if amending soil with manure, make sure it is well cured, and till it into the soil when preparing soil ahead of planting.

Water

If your cool-season includes rainfall, you may need little irrigation. Check your soil’s moisture by taking a handful, pressing it into a ball, and seeing if it holds together or crumbles apart, indicating it is too dry. When needed, drip or furrow irrigation is preferable to overhead sprinklers. Cabbage’s vegetative growth is not that sensitive to water stress, but when the cabbage begins forming the head, its productivity will notably decrease if evapotranspiration results in insufficient water. 

What Is Evapotranspiration?

Evapotranspiration refers to the amount of combined water loss due to evaporation — beginning with water from land, soil, and other surfaces — and transpiration — beginning with water from the plant itself.

Temperature and Humidity

Cabbage thrives between 60º and 65º F.  Once the weather climbs above the mid-70s, the plants may bolt and the leaves won’t form a head.

Overwinting

Some mature heads of cabbage may improve their flavor with a light frost, but they should be harvested before a full freeze occurs. Locations with mild winters can grow cabbage from late fall to spring.

Common Pests and Diseases

The cabbage looper is the most famous of brassica-munching pests. Those cute, green inch-worms can do a lot of damage, but rather than spray, try monitoring and natural remedies. Many herbs and companion plants can help repel cabbage’s insect enemies, and parasitic wasps will lay eggs in the cabbage looper that will kill it before it reaches maturity. 

Cabbage is susceptible to both seed-borne and soil-borne pathogens, including black rot and powdery mildew, according to one study in the Pharma Innovation Journal. To avoid this, the authors recommend treating the crops with hot water or fungicides; rotating crops to reduce foliar pathogens; and monitoring the area closely. Mildew, mold, and rot problems are difficult to cure, so the best solution is usually to remove the plant to keep diseases from spreading. Rotate the location of cabbage plants each season to avoid pests and pathogens.

Cabbage Varieties

Some cabbages have such showy and colorful leaves they can blur the line between ornamental and edible. While the standard globe of green is a multi-use veggie, try different varietals for a range of foliage as well as to have fresh ingredients for everything from borscht to spring rolls, colcannon to golabki.

  • Red cabbage is compact like a typical head of cabbage, but deep purple and full of antioxidants like anthocyanins.
  • Napa looks like a cross between Romaine lettuce and green cabbage. Its leaves are looser, the flavor and crunch lighter.
  • Savoy cabbage has a round, darker green head and features crinkly leaves with a mild, fresh taste.
  • Cone-shaped varietals such as Caraflex (green) or Kalibos (purple) form smaller but attractive, pointy heads and tend to be sweeter.

How to Harvest Cabbage

person wearing gardening gloves harvest large cabbage by cutting with large knife at base

Treehugger / K. Dave

Improper harvesting of cabbage can ruin its quality, reduce its flavor and nutritional value, and cause bacterial rot. In addition, harvesting overly mature heads and rough handling lead to losses. Proper tools (clean, sharp knives), picking firm, compact heads in the cool hours of the morning, and getting them out of the sunlight as quickly as possible.

How to Store and Preserve Cabbage

stacks of green cabbage heads freshly harvested and ready for storage

Treehugger / K. Dave

Fresh cabbage should last for 3-6 weeks when stored between 39° and 50° degrees F at 95% humidity to best maintain crispness, leaf color, and chlorophyll content. If your harvest is madly successful, you may want to try your hand at preserving it as homemade sauerkraut or kimchee.

View Article Sources
  1. "Growing Cabbage in Home Gardens." University of Minnesota Yard and Garden Extension.

  2. "Cultural Tips for Growing Cabbage." University of California Integrated Pest Management Program.

  3. Sharma, Anil, et al. "Major Diseases and Pathogen Ecology of Cabbage." The Pharma Innovation Journal, vol. 7, no. 7, 2018, pp. 574-578.