how to grow cabbage

How to grow cabbage: From planting seeds to harvesting heads

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Cabbage isn’t the most exciting or glamorous veggie (though as I kid, they were pretty cool because a cabbage patch produced adorable dolls). And the ornamental varieties are stunning in the fall garden. But this healthy veggie that is high in vitamin C and fibre, has a dependable spot in my fall recipe repertoire. I’ve also seen spectacular cabbages entered into competitions. Learning how to grow cabbage is pretty easy, and it’s very satisfying when you can pick your own to make cabbage rolls, cole slaw, sauerkraut, and other healthy and hearty meals.

There are dozens of cabbage varieties to choose from, and both chefs and home cooks probably all have their own particular favourites that they use in various hot and cold dishes. Those round heads of green and red cabbage you find at the grocery store and farmers’ markets are members of the Brassica oleracea family. Cole crops is another broad term that envelops the cultivated varieties of the Brassica family, which also include Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, collard greens, broccoli, and cauliflower. There are other types of cabbages to grow, too, like bok choy (Brassica rapa chinensis) and Napa cabbage (Brassica rapa Pekinensis).

How to grow cabbage from seed

It’s possible to find cabbage seedlings at garden centres in the spring, but you can also start them yourself from seed. Be sure to read the seed packet carefully to determine days to maturity. You’ll be planting seeds about 50 to 60 days before your region’s frost-free date. After filling with your seed-starting mix, plant three or four seeds per cell about a quarter of an inch (1/2 cm) deep. Cabbage needs a lot of bright sunlight to grow or plants will become leggy. I start a lot of my plants under my grow lights. Once your seedlings have sprouted, thin the smallest ones to keep your largest plant.

repotting cabbage seedlings

When your cabbage seedlings develop four true leaves, you can transplant them to larger pots.

If you plan ahead for succession planting, you can direct-sow seed in the ground around July for a fall crop. Or plant seeds under lights to give them a head start for July planting.

Planting cabbage seedlings in the garden

Because cabbage is a cool-season crop, you can plant cabbage in the ground sooner than your heat lovers, like tomatoes. The seed packet will help you count backwards from your region’s frost-free date. However, you should still harden them off before planting in the ground.

Pick a sunny spot in the garden with well-draining, friable soil. Amend the soil with lots of compost a week or so before planting. When you’re ready to dig them in, space your cabbage seedlings about 15 to 23 inches (38 to 60 cm) apart in rows that are 24 to 36 inches (60 to 90 cm) apart. The plants may look small at this point, but you want them to have room to spread into that leafy mass throughout the season!

seedlings ready to be planted in the garden

Keep in mind the eventual size of your cabbages when planting seedlings. They’ll need space to expand.

Water plants well after planting and throughout the growing season. Cabbages are heavy feeders and love nitrogen to grow. About three to four weeks after planting, side-dress each plant with an organic fertilizer. Keep the area well weeded, so plants aren’t competing for nutrients with weeds. You may want to add a light mulch of straw or shredded leaves around the planting area.

Keeping an eye out for pest damage

It can be so disheartening to head out into the garden, only to find that something has started to make a meal of a plant before you get to. There are a few pests that can inflict damage upon your cabbage plants, like cabbage worms, cabbage maggots, cabbage loopers, and cutworms. Jessica has written a thorough guide to eliminating cabbage worms.

homemade cardboard collar around cabbage

A cardboard collar (this one is from a frozen pizza) can be used to keep cabbage root flies away. Cabbage root flies are a bit smaller than a housefly, with bristly hairs. Female cabbage root flies lay their eggs (which turn into cabbage maggots) near the base of plants in the Brassica family, so the cardboard keeps them away. You can find out how to make it here.

How to grow cabbage under row cover to protect plants from pests

This year, the moment I got my cabbage seedlings (along with my broccoli and kale) planted in one of my raised beds in the spring, I immediately covered them in floating row cover.

This particular raised bed was built for my first book, Raised Bed Revolution, and was customized to include clamps on the inside that allow for PEX pipe hoops to form a mini hoop tunnel. Its intended use is really as a season extender. However after being discouraged during so many growing seasons by the presence of cabbage moths and worms, I decided to use the floating row cover as pest prevention, too. I put it over the raised bed that also featured Brussels sprouts and kale (also tasty to cabbage worms), as well as root veggies that didn’t need pollinators to grow and left it there for much of the summer.

The dreaded cabbage worm can damage all your Brassicas

The dreaded cabbage worm can turn the leaves of your cabbage plants into a holey mess. I keep a close eye on my Brassica crops and pick them off when I see evidence of their presence.

The sunlight was still able to shine through the lightweight floating row cover, so all the plants grew. I simply unhooked the spring clamps from the sides when I needed to water. This extra step was an acceptable part of my routine, because it meant I wasn’t surveying damage each morning. Niki’s latest book, Growing Under Cover, is an extensive guide to growing veggies under a variety of protective structures and is a helpful resource to figuring out how to protect your plants.

How do you know when to harvest your cabbage?

Your seed packet will tell you the size of a mature head of cabbage, but generally it will be about one to three pounds. Make sure the head is firm to the touch. Use a sharp knife to harvest at the base.

Brassica oleracea in a garden

When harvesting your cabbage, use a sharp knife to cut it away from the plant. If the plant is disease free, you can leave the plant in the ground and try growing another smaller head of cabbage.

Cabbage heads can split for a few reasons, a heavy rain or drought being common causes. If this happens, harvest the cabbage immediately.

This year, I grew a new variety called Sweet Thang that is described as a non-heading cabbage. I treated it like a cut-and-come-again variety of lettuce, snipping the outer leaves as I needed them. They were perfect for cabbage rolls, because I wasn’t carefully peeling leaves off a head of cabbage! I just cut a stack and par-boiled as required.

Sweet thang cabbage

Sweet Thang, a new variety from Burpee, is a non-heading cabbage that is part of the Tronchuda family. It’s also called Portuguese kale.

Choosing cabbage varieties

I would recommend asking fellow green thumbs for cabbage variety recommendations because everyone is going to have a different favourite. For gardeners who haven’t grown cabbages before, fast-maturing varieties, like Early Jersey Wakefield, are generally recommended. The aptly named Earliana is another example.

choosing varieties of Brassica oleracea

Seek advice from fellow veggie gardeners when deciding on which cabbage varieties to grow. Or throw caution to the wind and pick one from the dozens of varieties available.

For smaller spaces or to save space in a garden, try a baby cabbage variety, like Pixie.

What are your favourite cabbages to grow?

Growing cabbage from seed to healthy heads

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