For many a crop of growing cabbage plants are a cornerstone of the vegetable plot. A versatile vegetable, cabbages have a variety of different uses. A brassica, or cruciferous vegetable you can grow cabbage plants throughout the year, meaning that with some successional sowing these resilient crops can play a vital role in your quest to grow your own food all the year round.
Easy to grow, resilient and full of nutrients growing cabbage plants is a rewarding process. This guide to growing cabbage plants is designed to take you through everything that you need to know, from sowing seeds to harvesting fully formed vegetables.
Hardy and resilient, for many growing cabbage plants are a staple of the vegetable garden.
Different Cabbage Varieties
Often thought of as a fall crop, these vegetables can actually be grown throughout the year.
Growing cabbage plants are usually divided by when they are harvested. So spring cultivars are harvested in mid to late spring. Starting the seeds undercover enables you to harvest slightly earlier. Spring cultivars can also be harvested as spring greens when they are young.
Summer varieties are harvested throughout the summer months and into the early weeks of fall. Later in the year fall and winter cultivars continue to provide you with fresh vegetables as the rest of the garden lies dormant.
One of the best bits of growing cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata) is the sheer range of varieties to choose from. Depending on the cultivar the heads, or hearts, are either conical or rounded. Many green varieties as well as Bok Choy have smooth leaves. These are often glossy in appearance. Other cultivars such as Napa and Savoy have deeply crinkled leaves.
The color of the foliage can also vary between varieties. Some plants have light leaves while others have darker, rich looking foliage. For something a little more colorful there are also red cultivars. These are great for pickling and braising.
One of the most reliable cabbage varieties is the Savoy. These exceptionally hardy plants can be harvested from fall all the way through to early spring. Once mature, Savoy remains ripe for several months. A reliable, long lasting crop, just a few sowings can provide a steady supply of fresh vegetables for 3 seasons.
Crinkled varieties, such as Savoy, add texture as well as flavor to the dinner plate.
Hispi F1 is another reliable variety. A hybrid, it can be grown at any time of year. If sown in the fall Hispi is often ready for harvesting before spring specific varieties. This is a strong, uniform cultivar with a sweet flavor, Hispi F1 is also bolt resistant.
Tundra F1 is a cold hardy variety that is ideal for chilly winter gardens. Its crisp, medium heads can be harvested around 30 weeks after sowing the seeds. With a little care, these plants grow throughout the fall and winter months.
Greyhound is a compact dwarf cultivar. An early variety, its solid heads mature around 20 to 26 weeks after sowing.
Kilaxy F1 is a resilient cultivar which is resistant to club root. It produces late summer or fall compact heads which store well.
Pixie is a pointed, compact variety which is ideal for pots and containers. Its heads are early to mature and can be planted closely together. Hispi F1 is another excellent compact cultivar as is Minicole F1. This is a uniform, Dutch White variety which matures in early fall if sown in April.
There are also Chinese varieties such as Bok Choy. These are different to other cabbage plants and have different cultivation needs and requirements.
If you don’t have the time or space to grow from seed, many garden stores also sell young transplants in the spring and early summer. After hardening off, these can be planted straight out into the garden.
The average seed packet can contain anything from 40 to 400 seeds. The seeds keep in an airtight tin for up to 5 years so don’t worry about any that you don’t use straight away are going to waste.
Where to Grow
The majority of varieties are hardy and happily tolerate below freezing temperatures. This means that gardeners in almost every USDA Zone can enjoy some success growing cabbage plants.
Versatile plants, these crops grow best in places where the temperature rarely exceeds 75 °F. Regularly watering and mulching the soil around the plants helps to keep them cool in warmer areas. In warmer climates, growing in partial shade also helps to keep plants cool.
Doing best in a full sun position, a layer of mulch helps to keep growing cabbage plants cool.
For the best results, grow your plants in an open, sunny site. Ideally, growing cabbage plants should get around 6 hours of sun a day.
The soil should be as rich as possible. Before planting or sowing, work in lots of well-rotted manure or compost. If you are following a crop rotation system then this crop should follow peas, beans and other legumes. These lock nitrogen into their roots. The following year the nitrogen filled roots that remain in the soil give your growing cabbage plants an extra boost. If you have never followed a crop rotation system before, this guide explains the benefits and outlines a simple system that can be adopted and adapted to any growing situation.
Growing cabbage plants prefer an alkaline soil. Sprinkle some garden lime onto the soil after digging it over and before planting or sowing. Garden lime can also be raked in at planting time.
Growing Cabbage from Seed
You can start growing cabbage seeds undercover or in an outdoor seedbed. They can then be transplanted to their final position once they are large enough.
Starting undercover enables you to get a head start of the growing season. It is also a great way to maximize your harvest if space is at a premium.
The seeds like firm soil. If you are starting in seedbeds, lightly compact the soil by treading or shuffling along it before raking.
When you sow depends on what variety of plant you are growing. Sow spring seeds in late summer for harvest the following year. Summer varieties can be started in mid spring. Fall and winter cultivars can be started in late spring or early summer.
How to Sow the Seeds
To sow your seeds in a seed bed make holes roughly half an inch deep. Each hole should be spaced 6 inches apart. A line of string or sand sprinkled on the soil helps you to sow in straight lines.
If you are sowing undercover, in pots or trays, fill the containers with an all-purpose potting soil. Sow two to three seeds per cell or pot roughly half an inch deep. Following germination thin the seedlings out so that only the healthiest remains. Starting the seeds in biodegradable Peat Pots enables you to transplant them easily. Simply plant the pot along with the seedling. As the plant grows, the pot breaks down, enabling roots to spread. This is an ideal way to grow and transplant seedlings with sensitive root systems.
During this period, as seedlings develop, it is important that the soil is kept moist.
Growing cabbage plants are usually ready to transplant around 6 weeks after sowing the seeds or once they have developed three or four fully formed adult leaves. Spring varieties should be transplanted in early fall. Don’t leave it too late or the plants won’t have time to establish themselves before the cold, winter temperatures arrive.
Allow seedlings to develop at least 3 true leaves before transplanting.
Before transplanting, rake some organic general purpose fertilizer into the ground. This gives the transplants an extra boost.
Make a hole and plant the seedlings in the prepared soil, they should sit at the same level as in their previous position. Hardy plants, these crops can tolerate a little disturbance. Despite this, you should try to be as gentle as possible when handling the roots.
When transplanting from a seedbed, lift as much of the soil around the roots as possible. This helps to avoid any unnecessary disturbance, enabling the seedlings to settle more quickly.
Early varieties tend to need less space and are often smaller than later cultivars. In general, space spring and summer cultivars roughly 18 inches apart. Each row should also be spaced 18 inches apart. Fall and winter cultivars need a little more space, try to space the rows 2 ft apart. Remember, this is only a rough guide. Each cultivar has its own distinct requirements. For the exact spacing, consult the seed packet.
Firm the soil around the plants down well before watering. Soak the soil around the roots. This helps the soil to settle.
After planting, cover the plants with netting to protect them from pests such as the cabbage white butterfly.
Transplanting into Containers
If your soil is poor or space is at a premium, you will be pleased to learn that these crops also thrive in containers and pots. Plant one plant per 5 gallon or 19 litre container. While you can successfully grow two or three plants in a pot, the heads will be smaller than if given a little more space. Fill the pots with good, well draining potting soil and plant as described above.
Caring for Growing Cabbage Plants
As I have already noted, while growing cabbage plants is relatively straightforward they are prone to attacks from small pests such as white butterflies. The caterpillars of the butterfly, also known as cabbage worms, can quickly destroy entire crops.
A mesh or net, such as Ultra Fine Garden Mesh Netting protects growing cabbage plants from a range of small pests and insects. It also protects them from larger pests such as pigeons. Netting against butterflies is at its most effective during the summer months because this is when they are looking for places to lay their eggs.
Growing nasturtiums closeby as a sacrificial or trap crop can also help to deter caterpillars. When given a choice, butterflies prefer to settle on nasturtiums. Another useful companion plant is mint, this helps to deter flea beetles.
When to Water
Water your growing cabbage plants regularly. If it doesn’t rain each plant requires about 1 to 1.5 inches of water a week. Don’t allow the soil around the plants to dry out.
Fertilizing your Crop
Apply a dose of liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion or a balanced fertilizer, such as a 20-20-20 when plants start to form new leaves. Apply a second dose when heads start to form.
Regularly weed between the plants either with a hoe or by hand. This ensures that they have lots of room to grow and fully develop. There are a number of good weeding tools that can help you keep your garden neat and tidy.
A layer of mulch around the plants can help to deter weeds. It also keeps summer crops cool and winter crops warm.
Remove weeds quickly, before they have the chance to grow and smother your crops.
Despite their hardiness, winter cultivars do require some protection if you are experiencing a period of extremely cold weather. This can be provided by placing a cloche or Agfabric Floating Row Cover over the forming crops. If you are in a colder region, try growing cabbage plants in a cold frame or greenhouse.
A low maintenance plant, keep the area around the crops weed and debris free. This helps to prevent infestations of aphids, slugs and flea beetles.
If slugs are a persistent problem in your garden, this article has a number of suggestions for easy ways to get rid of them. Crop rotation helps to prevent diseases such as clubroot. Holes in the foliage are usually a sign of either worms or loopers. Pick off any pests that you notice on the foliage.
As well as pests, these plants also suffer from a number of typical brassica problems. Again, adopting a simple crop rotation system helps to negate most of these, as does growing cabbage plants in well draining soil.
Cabbage root fly is a small grey pest, lays its eggs around the base of the plant. After hatching the maggots target the plants root system, causing them to wilt and fail. Covering your growing cabbage plants with a net helps to prevent the pests as does placing a collar around the base of the plant.
Check the foliage for any hiding pests such as aphids.
How to Harvest
Many winter cultivars, such as Savoy, taste better after a light frost. This helps to bring out their flavor. Spring cultivars can be lifted young, when the heads are loose as spring greens or allowed to mature in the ground. Harvesting young plants enables you to make repeat cuttings.
To test the maturity of the head, give it a squeeze. It should feel firm. When the head is firm and a good size it is ready for harvesting.
To harvest, cut firm heads at the base of the plant.
If a head cracks, harvest immediately regardless of how firm it is. Allowing split heads to remain in place can attract pests and disease.
If the weather is favorable the plants may continue to form little, loose heads that can be cut as mini vegetables.
Healthy, harvested heads keep for several weeks in a refrigerator.
Full of nutrients, such as Vitamin C, B2 and A, these plants are a healthy, easy to grow addition to the vegetable garden. Additionally, a home grown cabbage is a lot sweeter and crunchier than a store purchased variety.
A staple of the vegetable garden, almost everyone can enjoy growing cabbage plants. Why not start cultivating some of your own versatile plants today?
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.