Let’s learn how to grow cabbage! Cabbage is wonderfully diverse and nutritious, and I think it’s really beautiful too. Ideal fresh eating, storage or preserving, cabbage is a staple for stir-fries, coleslaw, sauerkraut, kimchi, wraps, soups and more. Considering cabbage is one of our favorite crops to grow (and I’ve even been dubbed “the cabbage queen” a time or two) this grow guide is long overdue.
Read along to learn everything you need to know to grow cabbage from seed (or nursery seedlings) to harvest. We’ll explore the best time of year to grow cabbage, planting and care tips, our favorite varieties, when and how to harvest cabbage, and how to best store, use or preserve it. This guide will also troubleshoot some potential issues such as pests, disease, and splitting cabbage heads.
At a Glance
Cabbage is a versatile crop that can be grown in a wide range of climates and conditions. Cabbage is cold-hardy and prefers cool growing temperatures (especially during maturation) though it can successfully grow during the heat of summer too! Depending on the variety, cabbage can take anywhere from 2 to 4 months to mature (65 to 100+ days) from seed to harvest. Many varieties hold up in cold storage for several months post-harvest.
When to plant cabbage
The best time to plant cabbage in most growing zones is early-to-mid summer in preparation of a fall harvest. Cabbage that spends its final days maturing in cooler conditions will be exceptionally more juicy, tender, and sweet-tasting compared to cabbage that matures during hot summer weather.
That said, gardeners that have a long growing season (e.g. zone 8 or higher) and/or those with mild summer temperatures can also plant cabbage in the early spring for a summer harvest. Here on the temperate Central Coast of California, we can grow cabbage essentially year-round!
- For a fall harvest, start seeds in May and then transplant seedlings into the garden in June or July. Late-season and storage varieties are ideal for summer planting. Folks with especially short growing seasons or that receive freezing conditions in early fall should start a few weeks sooner, or choose faster-maturing varieties.
- For a summer harvest, choose early to mid-season cabbage varieties with shorter maturation times. Start seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before your last frost date. Plant seedlings outside after the risk of frost has passed.
- For a winter harvest: Plant cabbage seedlings anytime between September to February in climates with mild winters (where temperatures are rarely below 32°F). However, we’ve found seedlings get the most vigorous start when planted in September or October, before the reduced sunlight and shorter days of winter.
Types of cabbage to grow
Cabbage is incredibly diverse! There are classic round green heads of cabbage, red versions, savoy cabbage with ruffled leaves, and tender elongated Napa cabbage, which is especially popular to make kimchi. Within each of those groups, there are dozens of unique varieties, shapes, and sizes of cabbage to try and grow! Not to mention that Brussels sprouts, bok choy, kale (aka leaf cabbage) and many others are technically members of the cabbage family.
Read variety descriptions to determine if a particular type of cabbage is ideal for long term storage, matures early or late, offers natural disease resistance, or other unique attributes.
We always like to grow several different varieties, colors and sizes. We also choose cultivars with varying maturation times, plus those with good “field storage” abilities (e.g. can be left in the garden awhile, even after they’ve reached a harvestable size) giving us a nice staggered harvest of cabbage over several months.
Some of our favorite cabbage varieties include: Integro (mid-size red), Expect (dense green heads with notable heat tolerance and good long term storage capacity), Capture (medium green heads, great disease resistance but shorter storage life), Deadon (large sage green heads kissed with purple streaks, extra cold-hardy), Caraflex (small conical green heads), Megaton (massive 10-17 pound heads!), and Emiko Napa cabbage (a compact, bolt-tolerant Napa cabbage variety).
Starting cabbage from seed
To grow cabbage from seed, follow typical seed-starting best practices outlined below. If you’re new to growing from seed, stop by our Seed Starting 101 guide for more detailed tips on raising seedlings indoors! If you aren’t growing from seed, check out this article to learn how to choose the best seedlings at the nursery.
- Sow seeds in a light, fluffy, sterile seed-starting soil.
- Plant cabbage seeds ¼ inch deep and cover very lightly with soil.
- Keep the soil evenly moist. A humidity dome can help prevent the top of the soil from drying out during germination.
- Ideal soil temperature for cabbage seeds to sprout is between 75 to 85F. Use a seedling heat mat if needed.
- As soon as sprouts emerge, the cabbage seedlings need strong bright light. A very sunny window may work, though I recommend using grow lights for the best results when starting seeds indoors.
- After sprouting, switch to bottom-watering to promote deep root growth and prevent damping off (fungal disease).
- Thin seedlings early! Once their first set of true leaves appear, I cut out extra seedlings using fine pruning snips – leaving just one choice seedling per container or cell. Thinned seedlings grow much larger, faster and healthier than crowded ones.
- Once they’re at least 3 weeks old, feed cabbage seedlings with a gentle fertilizer such as diluted liquid kelp or fish emulsion.
- To prevent transplant shock, harden off indoor-raised seedlings before transplanting them outside.
Planting cabbage seedlings (spacing)
Plant cabbage seedlings outdoors on a calm day with no extreme weather in the forecast. We like to add a handful of worm castings in each planting hole as a gentle boost of nutrients to encourage healthy root development. Water well after planting. It’s okay to slightly bury the stems of tall leggy seedlings as long as they’ve been properly hardened off. If needed, protect tender seedlings from frost exposure (explained more to follow).
Spacing requirements for cabbage plants depends on the variety. In general, plan to space cabbage plants about 2 feet apart. Some smaller or more compact cabbage varieties can be spaced as close as 12”, while extra-large cultivars may need up to 3 feet of space. I like to grow cabbage in staggered rows (slightly offsetting each plant) to maximize the number of plants I can fit per bed.
Sun, soil, water & fertilizer requirements
- Sun: Cabbage grows best with full sun – or at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day.
- Soil: Cabbage prefers fertile, loamy, well-draining soil with good moisture retention properties. Amend soil with organic matter such as aged compost. Protect the soil with 2 to 3 inches of mulch around the base of the plant, which will help retain even moisture and buffer the roots against temperature swings.
- Water: Cabbage requires consistent moisture: both in frequency and amount. Meaning, aim to keep your cabbage soil fairly moist at all times (but not soggy), and water on a schedule. Irregular water or under-watering can lead to poor head development – including loose, airy cabbage heads. Overwatering can lead to root rot, or may cause very mature cabbage heads to split.
- Fertilizer: Before planting cabbage, add a well-balanced, slow-release organic fertilizer like this one to the soil. It will slowly release nutrients to feed the plant for many months. Extra-large or late-maturing cabbages may benefit from additional nutrients halfway through the growing season (when they first start heading up), such as compost tea, alfalfa tea, or another side-dressing of dry fertilizer on top.
How cold can cabbage plants withstand?
While cabbage does prefer cooler weather overall, it can be damaged by freezing conditions. Cabbage seedlings are far more frost-sensitive than mature cabbage plants, which can tolerate temperatures down to 26°F once established. If the temperature drops below 32°F, protect cabbage plants by covering them with frost cloth – or an upside down bucket over the top! Remember to remove covers (buckets especially) during the day when temperatures rise.
Can I grow cabbage in a pot?
Absolutely! Cabbage can be grown in containers, though you’ll want to use a large enough pot to sustain a healthy plant of its size. Small containers are more prone to drying out, and will require more frequent fertilizing. So, grow cabbage in a container that holds at least 5 gallons of soil and is at least 12 inches wide by 15 to 18 inches deep. A 15 to 20 gallon grow bag would work well, but would need more regular watering than a raised bed or in-ground garden.
Cabbage Pests and Disease
The most common cabbage pests include aphids, slugs or snails, and caterpillars – including aptly-named cabbage moths, cabbage worms, and cabbage loopers. Beyond insects, other garden visitors may be attracted to cabbage (especially tender young plants) such as birds, rodents, deer, rabbits, and others. One interesting thing I’ve observed is that pests are less attracted to purple cabbage varieties compared to green – especially caterpillars and birds!
Cabbage pest control measures depend on the severity of the infestation. Inspect plants often to catch issues early! It’s easy to spot and hand-smush a few cabbage worm eggs, or blast aphids off leaves with a firm stream of water. Protect cabbages from more persistent pests with physical barriers like hoops and insect netting, natural BT spray for cabbage worms, or DIY soap spray for aphids.
Common cabbage diseases include a variety of different bacterial or fungal infections such as powdery mildew, downy mildew, black rot, bacterial soft rot, and others. Many of these cabbage diseases coincide with wet foliage, so it’s best to water cabbage at the base of the plant and avoid splashing the leaves as much as possible. Good plant spacing (airflow between plants) and soil health routines (e.g. using biologically-active compost and mycorrhizae) can help prevent disease as well.
Troubleshooting: Why did my cabbage split open?
Cabbage heads may split open for a number of reasons. It happens fast too! One minute it looks fine, and the next day – bam! It’s cracked or busted open. Don’t worry, split cabbage is still good to eat though! Simply cut around any iffy-looking parts and enjoy the rest.
The most common cause of splitting cabbage is when a mature cabbage head suddenly absorbs too much water – such as after a heavy rain, or from being overwatered after a dry spell. So, pick your large firm cabbage heads before a big rainstorm! Remember that mulch is key in maintaining evenly damp soil, preventing the moisture yo-yo that cabbage hates. Using drip irrigation also offers steady, slow, deep water – ideal for cabbage.
Mature cabbages may also split if they’re left in the field long past their prime. Have you ever thought about where cabbage seed comes from? If you don’t harvest cabbage in a timely manner, it will crack open and eventually grow flowers (and later seed) from the center or core of the head.
Finally, over-feeding your cabbage late in the growing season can lead to split heads, brought on by the sudden burst of nutrients and growth. Once your cabbage begins to form a head, reduce or avoid adding fertilizer.
When and How to Harvest Cabbage
You can tell cabbage is ready to harvest by feeling it. A mature head of cabbage will feel dense and tight, while immature cabbage heads feel leafy and loose. The size of mature cabbage can vary greatly depending on variety. Some cabbage heads are the size of a softball, while others are basketball size or larger!
If the variety is known to have good “field storage” abilities, you can definitely leave them out in the garden for a while after they’ve reached a harvestable size (weather permitting of course). We’ve left some of ours for a couple months after they headed up without issue!
It’s best to harvest cabbage in the early morning while it’s cool, crisp, and firm. To harvest cabbage, you can either:
- Use a sharp knife, loppers, or a small hand saw to cut the whole plant out at the soil line, leaving the roots to decompose in place no-till style
- Twist or pull the entire plant out (roots and all), OR
- Cut only the head off, leaving the base of the plant to re-grow more baby cabbages. Keep reading to learn more!
Will cabbage grow back after cutting?
Yes, cabbage will grow more baby heads of cabbage once the main head is removed! For this to happen, harvest the main head by cutting just below the base of the head, but leave several inches of stem and a handful of old leaves behind to grow.
Within a few weeks you should see new baby cabbage buds starting to form. If multiple buds regrow, trim some off to leave only two or three to develop. The new cabbage “side-heads” won’t be as large as the first one, but they’re still a great little treat if you have time and space to leave your cabbage plants to regrow!
Are cabbage leaves edible?
Absolutely. The loose outer cabbage leaves are 100% edible. They’re like a cross between cabbage and collard greens. However, because the outer cabbage leaves are often quite old, tattered, and even buggy by the end of the season, they aren’t necessarily the most enticing. We usually feed them to our chickens or toss them in the compost pile.
Yet if you do want to cook with them, I suggest removing the ribs (like de-stemming kale) and cooking them long enough to get tender. That said, cabbage leaves are a great addition to soup! Younger, more tender cabbage leaves are popular to make cabbage rolls.
How to Store Cabbage After Harvest
Remove all the loose or damaged outer leaves from the cabbage head. If needed, trim the stem down to be flush with the bottom of the head. Leave un-washed until use. For the best long-term quality, store cabbage in the refrigerator wrapped in a plastic bag (tied or clipped shut). Many cabbage varieties will last for several months stored in the refrigerator. Even if a little mold starts to develop on the outer leaves or stem, that can be cut off. The inner portion of the head should still be good!
Ways to Use and Preserve Cabbage
Use fresh cabbage in soups, stew, stir-fries, coleslaw and more. Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat) makes a mean coleslaw! Get our coleslaw recipe here. I also love simple sautéed cabbage with a little olive oil or butter, salt, pepper, and garlic. You can grill or roast cabbage, or eat it raw in salads or wraps! Check out this round-up of over 50 cabbage recipes for more ideas.
There are a number of ways to preserve cabbage. One of our personal favorites is to make homemade sauerkraut. Making fermented kimchi is another similar option. To freeze cabbage, cut it into bite size pieces, quickly blanch it (two minutes or less), spread onto a towel-lined pan to dry, and then pack into freezer bags. We also use and preserve cabbage by incorporating it into freezer-friendly soup recipes. Crystal’s book?
That wraps up this cabbage grow guide.
Well folks, I hope this gave you allll the information that you need to successfully grow cabbage, and then some! Lol. Maybe it’s my German roots and fond memories of cooking cabbage with my parents growing up, but I truly do love it. Please let me know in the comments below if you have any lingering questions. If you found this article to be useful, please help spread the love by pinning or sharing this post! Thanks for tuning in today.
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