Cabbage isn’t the most exciting or glamorous vegetable (though as a 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 healthy and hearty meals, like cabbage rolls, stir fries, Cole slaw and other salads, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
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. The green heads, like Savoy cabbage, as well as the purple-leaved varieties of red cabbage 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 early 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 last frost 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.
If you plan ahead for succession planting, you can direct-sow seed in the ground around mid to late summer 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!
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, flea beetles, cabbage root maggots, cabbage loopers, and cutworms. If you happen to see what looks like a small white butterfly hovering around your cabbages, it’s likely a cabbage moth. Those butterflies may be pretty, but they lay the cabbage worm eggs on brassicas. And those worms can make short work of your precious veggies. Jessica has written a thorough guide to eliminating cabbage worms.
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 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.
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.
How to prevent cabbage heads from splitting
Cabbage heads can split for a few reasons. Too much soil moisture, often caused by heavy fall rains, for example, can result in split heads. If Mother Nature cooperates, you want to aim for your soil to be evenly moist closer to harvest time. Once a cabbage head has split, harvest it immediately, and eat as soon as possible, because you won’t be able to store it for as long.
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.
For smaller spaces or to save space in a garden, try a baby cabbage variety, like Pixie.
Tips for growing other brassicas in your veggie garden
- How to grow kale: Tips for planting, preventing pests, and harvesting healthy plants
- When to harvest broccoli for high yields and great flavor
- How to grow kale indoors: Harvest fresh leaves without stepping foot outside
- Lacinato kale: Learn how to grow this delicious heirloom kale
- Summer succession planting basics: Grow kale, kohlrabi, broccoli, and more