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How to Grow Cabbage: A Growing Guide

Cabbage, in one form or another, has been around since 4,000 B.C, with evidence of cultivation in the Shensi province of China. It can be enjoyed fresh in a slaw salad, cooked in a great dish like corned beef and cabbage or fermented into sauerkraut or kimchi. However you like to eat it, cabbage comes in several forms and can be planted late summer or spring (depending on where you live).

Cabbage Types

Cabbage Types: Bok Choi, Green, Napa, Red, Savoy, Ornamental

Bok Choy or Pak Choi: Pale green stalks topped by distinctive leaves at tips, mild flavored.

Green (Standard): Traditional type found at the grocery store. Green cabbages are tightly packed and have heavy green heads.

Napa (Chinese/Asian/Celery): Thick white stalks with lighter green ruffled leaves, oblong shaped, mild flavored.

Red/Purple: Tightly packed heavy heads; similar to green type but normally smaller in size.

Savoy: Deeply ridged, crinkled, and lacy, green leaves; less compact than standard and more tender. Savoy is the most frost-tolerant variety.

Ornamental: Hybridized varieties developed for colors from cream to purple in a rosette form. Edible, but grown for ornamental use.

Growing Basics

Soil: Requires well drained, fertile soil with a pH between 6–7.5 in full sun as shade will slow maturity (but can be helpful with growing in very warm regions). Due to pest and disease issues, do not plant in same location each year. Soil should be firm and not too light in tilth in order to support plants.  Try growing cabbage in some of our Peaceful Valley Organics Potting Soil; it is an excellent, organic all-around mix.

Air Temperatures: Considered a cool season crop, cabbage best develops at 60–65°F. It somewhat tolerates frost, but its tender leaves inside may be affected while outer leaves will appear unaffected. Extended periods of temperatures between 35–50°F can lead to flowering instead of head formation.

Days to Emergence: Cabbage germinates in 4 to 7 days depending on the variety and its conditions.

Seed Longevity: If properly stored, the seeds should be viable for up to 4 years. Check out our handy Seed Package Storage Box to help you sort and store your seeds.

Spacing: Plant cabbage seeds 12–24 inches apart in rows spaced 18 to 34 inches apart depending on variety (late season varieties need most space before harvest).

Companion Planting:

  • Incompatibility — Strawberries, Tomatoes, Pole Beans, Garlic
  • Companions — Cucumbers, Thyme, Mint, Onions, Sage, Celery, Beets, Potatoes

Water Requirements: Cabbage needs consistent watering to avoid head splitting. Avoid overhead watering; it's best to use drip irrigation. Because the plants are shallow rooted, use mulch to retain moisture.

Fertilization: Address amendments prior to transplanting into garden, supplementing per product label.

Planting & Growing

Large cabbage heads growing in rows on a farm.

Spring Planting: Sow seeds indoors 4–6 weeks before your last spring frost date. Plant ¼–½” deep in dampened soilless mix (Quickroot) to prevent damping off. Keep soil about 60–70°F and moist. Use grow lights if light is not sufficient and keep soil cooler after germination. This will help prevent leggy plants. After first true set of leaves have formed, feed with half dilutions of liquid fish and liquid kelp  every couple of days.

When the transplants have 5–6 true leaves they are suitable for hardening off before planting. Transplant when night time temperatures are 45°F and danger of frost has past. Space transplants about 12–18” apart (depending on variety). Cover plants with a row cover if there is a danger of frost. Plant with lowest leaves at soil level. Feed with a fertilizer that is higher in phosphorus and lower in nitrogen (we suggest our Peaceful Valley Organics Bloom & Bud.)

Summer Planting: Seeds can be started indoors in late May to transplant in JuneJuly for fall crop, or direct seed in July.

Harvesting

Squeeze heads to detect firmness. If loose rather than firm, allow heads to mature further. Heavy rains can cause heads to split, so you may want to harvest if rain is in the forecast. If heads crack, harvest immediately.

Cut at soil line or use a shovel to cut below surface. If seasons are long enough, head can be cut above leaves and the plant may yield another head before the season ends.

Cabbage can be stored for several weeks if refrigerated. Early varieties do not store as well or as long as late varieties.

Common Pests & Diseases

Common Pests & Diseases: Cabbage

Cabbage Aphid: Gray/green with a waxy coating, usually in clusters.usually found on the underside of leaves or on flower head. Control by strong spray of water, beneficial insects, or organic insecticides labeled for aphids.

Cabbage Root Maggot: From eggs of tiny grayish-brown flies. Eggs can sometimes be detected on the stem at soil level. Larvae tunnel into the roots causing early wilting and eventual death of plant, especially if plant is young and small. Avoid over fertilization with manures, can cover young plants with floating row covers (remove when temperatures get hot).

Cabbage Worm: Leaves eaten. Cover with floating row covers (remove when temperatures get hot), hand pick, beneficial insects, or an organic insecticide labeled for cabbage worms.

Clubroot: May see stunting, yellowing or wilting of foliage and swelling and distortion of the roots. Don’t plant vegetables in the brassicae family in the same location each year. If present, raise pH to 7.2 with lime. Can solarize soil to help control.

Cut worms: Use foil collars around the base of the plants (at soil level).

Diamondback Moth: Larvae feed on underside of leaves. More likely seen in spring to early summer. Hand pick them off, use beneficial insects, or use an organic insecticides labeled for Diamondback moths.

Flea Beetles: Visual symptoms are holes in leaves. Cover with floating row covers (remove when temperatures get hot), hand pick them off, use beneficial insects, sticky traps or an organic insecticide labeled for flea beetles.

Slugs and Snails: Very fond of cabbage as well. You can use some Sluggo Plus sprinkled around each plant to take care of these pests.

Pest Control – IPM (Integrated Pest Management)

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that starts with the least invasive or impactful control methods and considers the use of chemical controls as the last step. For more information watch our Integrated Pest Management video.

Important to practice good cultural controls for pest management of cabbage. Cultural controls such as removing plants after harvest (to avoid leaving food for insects to continue to multiply on), practice crop rotation (i.e. do not plant crops in same family, in the same area for 3 years), use row covers such as Agribon AG15 (cover before insects arrive or to protect against birds when plants are young).

Common Questions

Why do the heads split? Usually this is due to stress, such as rains following a dry spell, but it can also be that the head is past maturity and should be harvested.

Are cabbage plants container compatible? Cabbage is best suited to in ground situations. They can be grown in large, deep containers if moisture and nutritional needs are monitored. They do not do well in grow bags.

Tips of leaves inside cabbage head are brown, but it does not show on outer leaves. What causes this? Do not use ammonium forms of nitrogen to fertilize and avoid water stress.

Definitions

Heirloom: Heirloom seeds come from open-pollinated plants that pass on similar characteristics and traits from the parent plant to the next generation plant. Heirloom vegetables are old-time varieties generally which have been in production since before WWII, and have been saved and handed down through multiple generations.

Hybrid: a cross between two or more unrelated plant varieties. The two different varieties are cross bred, resulting in a seed that carries one or more favorable traits (increased yield, uniformity, color, disease resistance.) Hybrid seeds are not GMO, as they are manually cross-bred, not genetically modified in a lab. Hybrid seed is often sterile or does not reproduce true to the parent plant. Therefore, never save the seed from hybrids.

Open Pollinated: generally refers to seeds that will “breed true”. When the plants of an open-pollinated variety self-pollinate, or are pollinated by another representative of the same variety, the resulting seeds will produce plants roughly identical to their parents. Genetic traits may differ only slightly due to variations created by local conditions.

GMO: Genetically Modified Organisms were genetically modified in a laboratory where DNA genes are extracted and mixed with other unrelated plants to improve characteristics. Saved seed will not always be viable and may be trademarked to prevent unauthorized use.

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