How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Cabbage in Your Garden
Cabbage is a fairly common plant that's grown by many gardeners across all skill levels. It has a variety of different uses, and is easy to care for. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey examines every step you need to take in order to plant, grow, and care for cabbage in your garden.
Whether in coleslaw or winter soups, sauerkraut, or sautees, cabbage is a staple in nearly every cuisine. Thanks to their versatility and resilience, these cruciferous crinkly heads have found their way into the gardens and kitchens of people all across the world. Cabbage is one of the easiest crops to grow and is especially well adapted to cool regions where spring and fall diversity is limited.
Because cabbage is one of the cheapest vegetables to buy in stores, you might be wondering why you should go through all the trouble of growing it in your garden. Homegrown cabbage is fresher, more nutritious, stores longer, and far more flavorful than those pale bland heads at the supermarket.
Plus, growing cabbage in your own garden opens up a rainbow of possibilities to try more than 400 different varieties of cabbage from all over the world: savoy cabbage, napa Chinese cabbage, fuschia red cabbage, and conehead cabbage are just a few of the dazzling seed options to experiment with.
Regardless of what varieties you pick, this staple Brassica crop is robust in a range of weather conditions. It is easy to grow and not too fussy about soil or moisture. Let’s dig into how to plant, grow, and care for the tastiest cabbage you’ve ever tasted.
Cabbage Plant Overview
Plant Type Annual Vegetable
Species oleracea var. capitata
Hardiness Zone USDA 1-9
Season Spring or Fall
Plant Height 12-14 inches
Ferility Needs Heavy
Temperature 55-75 degrees
Plant With Spinach, Lettuce, Beets, Chard
Soil Type Well-draining, Rich, Slightly Alkaline
Plant Spacing 12-18 inches
Watering Needs High
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Days to Maturity 70-100 days
Pests Flea Beetles and Thrips
Diseases Downy Mildew and Club Root
History and Cultivation
Archeological evidence shows that farmers and gardeners have cultivated the humble cabbage for well over 4,000 years. The first cabbages were likely “non-heading” types, meaning they grew with a more open habit like kale or mustard greens. These wild mustard or kale ancestors were likely domesticated by Celtic or ancient Greek agriculturalists.
The rounded cabbage heads we know today came from centuries of plant breeding and seed saving. In the modern-day, this multi-layered vegetable has made its way into food culture across the world.
While China leads the world in cabbage production (more than 71 million tons grown annually), the Russians eat more per capita than any other country (an estimated seven times as much as the average American). In fact, cabbage is the Russian national food! These crisp heads are an important staple food in cool northern climates where it is one of the last crops standing in the cold frosts of fall and can be stored in the ground or in a dry root cellar for many months.
What is Cabbage?
Cabbage is a leafy green vegetable closely related to kale, mustards, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli. It is a cool-season biennial that is grown as an annual for dense heads of crisp leaves. It also goes by the species name Brassica oleracea var. capitata, which encompasses some 400 different cultivars.
As a member of the Brassicaceae family, cabbage is often called a “cole” crop or “cruciferous” vegetable. The latter name “crucifer” is Latin for cross, referencing the cross-shaped flowers of four petals and four sepals found amongst all the mustard family members. The term “cabbage” comes from the French word for caboche, which means “head”.
Where Does Cabbage Originate?
Wild cabbage likely originated in the eastern Mediterranean or western Asia, however, its ancestry is blurry due to the fact that non-heading cabbage and kale relatives have been growing wild throughout Europe and Asia for millennia.
However, Western and Central European Celts get most of the credit for domesticating cabbage as a food plant. The Celtic people invaded the Mediterranean repeatedly throughout the Christian era of 600 BC to 275 BC, taking hold of indigenous seeds and plants to propagate throughout their territories.
In southern Europe, the warm weather non-heading types of cabbage became very popular, while northward expansion to colder regions led to the Nordic development of hard-heading, frost-tolerant varieties. Regardless of whether they were non-heading or hard-headed caboches, the Celtic love for cabbage (“bresic”) eventually influenced the Latin genus name Brassica.
The classic round-headed “hard” cabbage arrived in England around the 16th century and quickly spread to Germany, France, and other parts of Europe. Interestingly, evidence of cabbage in Japan didn’t arrive until several centuries later when Napa cabbage and other Asian varieties began to appear in eastern gardens.
Cabbage finally made its way to America in the mid-1500s by explorer Jacques Cartier. It was first planted in Canada but quickly became popular amongst European colonists as well as Native Americans. While the classic round, smooth, green cabbage has become mainstream in American cuisine, savoy-leaved and red cabbages continue to grow in popularity in Europe as well as global foodie circles.
Like all of its Brassica cousins, cabbage is typically grown and propagated by seed. The seeds are round and about the size of a mustard seed, making them fairly easy for beginner gardeners and children to participate in the planting process. If you don’t have a greenhouse or mini nursery set up in your home, cabbage seedlings are widely available in the spring and fall at all major garden stores.
How to Direct Seed
Although not super common, cabbage can be directly seeded into the garden (especially in areas where the weather is mild). The seeds should be planted ¼-½” deep at a rate of 3-4 seeds every foot in rows 24-36” apart. Cover lightly with row cover to protect the emerging seedlings from temperature extremes and to maintain soil moisture. Once germinated, don’t forget to thin the plants to 12-18” between each plant.
For novice gardeners, direct-seeded cabbage is often more difficult to grow to full-size due to pest pressure and lots of outdoor variables. For the best results and survival rate, I recommend purchasing seedlings or starting cabbage indoors like us farmers do.
How to Start Seedlings
It is best to start cabbage in cell trays and transplant it into the garden after 4-6 weeks of indoor growth. The time of sowing depends on whether you choose early, midseason, or late-season varieties. Count back 4-6 weeks from your planting date to determine when to seed inside.
Begin with 50 or 72-cell plug flats filled with a high-quality organic seed starting mix. Make a small hole and sow 2-3 seeds per cell about ¼” deep in the soil blend. Lightly cover with more soil and water thoroughly.
Cabbage is a quick gratification crop that sprouts in just 4 to 10 days. Maintain continuous moisture during this time and try to keep the ambient temperature around 60°F. While cabbage is very cold-tolerant, the young seedlings still need to be protected from cold temperatures.
Planting cabbage is very simple and straightforward. It is planted just like any other brassica (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) and I often treat all of these vegetables in the same way in my spring gardens.
The most important thing to remember is that cabbage should ease into cold weather. If properly hardened off, cabbage starts are very cold hardy in the garden. However, they are still baby plants and can be vulnerable to temperature extremes.
How to Transplant Cabbage
When planting time comes around, cabbage seedlings should be about 4” tall with at least three true leaves and thoroughly developed roots. Just be sure that they are not root-bound or stressed, or they may have a harder time taking off once in the garden. Strong and robust baby plants always grow into the healthiest adult cabbages.
In the spring, cabbage is often planted out a few weeks before the final hard frost. If properly hardened off, these brassicas can be among the first vegetables in your garden. To harden off your seedlings, slowly begin acclimating the seedling trays to outdoor temperatures for a week before planting.
As long as daytime temperatures are consistently about 40°F, you can leave seedlings outdoors for a few hours, gradually working up to a full day, and then staying out overnight beneath a protective row cover or frost blanket.
Cabbage prefers rich, well-drained soil, so I prefer to amend my garden beds with a generous helping of compost a couple of weeks before planting. Shredded decomposed leaves incorporated into the bed can also add a nice addition of organic matter. Be sure that the site is in full sunlight and weed-free.
When it’s time to plant, use a tape measure to mark out the spacing for cabbage. Most varieties need about 12-18” between plants and 18-24” between rows. Big cabbages need plenty of space for their lateral leaves to spread out and support that central growing head. Cabbages planted too close together will yield tiny balls that may not fully “head up” into the dense crisp veggie that we crave.
Use a hori hori or garden trowel to dig a hole just slightly larger than the root balls of your seedlings. Gently grasp each plant at the base and wiggle it out of the cell tray, placing it in the hole. Backfill lightly, keeping the soil level aligned with the base of the cabbage start. Feed with an all-purpose organic fertilizer or water with a diluted fish emulsion.
Though optional, I always cover my cabbage with a row cover at the time of planting. Flea beetles and rabbits can be two of your worst enemies when trying to plant out baby cabbages. It’s best to keep them protected until they are larger and can fend for themselves. The row cover also helps maintain a warmer microclimate around the newly planted seedlings.
How to Grow
Cabbage is easy to grow and relatively hands-off once it gets started. The broad lateral span of leaves helps cabbage compete very well with weeds while also conserving soil moisture. These plants are resilient to a variety of weather conditions as long as it doesn’t get so hot that they want to bolt (go to flower).
If you’ve been wanting to try out unique varieties or preserve a ton of nutritious fermented cabbage for the winter months, a few simple steps will set you up for success very quickly.
Like most vegetable crops, cabbage prefers full sunlight. Plant it in an area of the garden that gets 6-8 hours of full sun exposure every day. Avoid anywhere that may get completely shaded out by trees or other structures. With that being said, their 6-8 hour sun requirements, makes cabbage a vegetable that can grow in the shade, but it just may not thrive as well as plants that have more sun.
Cabbage is a thirsty crop. It is best to set it up with drip irrigation or soaker hoses so you can avoid overhead watering and all the potential disease issues it can cause. It prefers a deep, thorough soak every week during dry spells.
However, since it is typically grown in spring and fall, there is often plenty of rainfall for cabbage to get by on. Regularly check the soil surrounding your plant to ensure that it is moist, but not soggy.
Brassica-family plants love well-drained, slightly alkaline soil that is rich in organic matter. The ideal pH is somewhere between 6 and 7. Soil that is too acidic can result in issues with club root (described below), so consider adding bone meal or crushed eggshells to slightly raise your soil pH.
Cabbage enjoys being planted in soil that has been amended with plenty of compost, decomposed manure, or shredded, rotten leaves. The soil should be loose and friable to ensure fast root establishment for seedlings.
Climate and Temperature
Cabbage is a crop that loves cool weather. It can grow in USDA zones 1-9. You can plant it either in the spring for an early summer harvest, or plant in the late summer for a fall or winter harvest. Seedlings germinate best in soil temperatures around 70°F.
The plants prefer to grow in ambient temperatures between 55° and 75°F. Excessively hot temperatures can cause bolting or crop failure, so be sure to choose a heat-resistant variety if you are in the south, or simply avoid growing during the warmer months.
Young seedlings can only tolerate down to 32°F, however mature plants can handle freezes well below 15°F. With frost protection, they are even more cold-hardy. No wonder cabbage has been a staple in Russia and Nordic countries for thousands of years!
Cabbage is a heavy feeder that requires plenty of fertility in the soil to grow a nice fat head of greens. At planting, I prefer to amend with a nice balanced all-purpose organic granular fertilizer. Then, you can apply a diluted fish emulsion every 3-4 weeks until the heads begin to form. Once heads start forming, you don’t need to apply any more fertilizer. Too much rapid growth in this phase can lead to split or cracked heads.
It’s best to avoid any fertilizer that is super high in nitrogen, as this leads to a lot of leafy foliage growth without as much head development. Opt for balanced organic fertilizer and/or high-quality compost to support your plants throughout the season.
Cabbage is a really laid-back plant once they get established and start growing heads. The only maintenance they require is regular weeding and a little bit of pruning if there are any yellow or rotting outer leaves. Removing unhealthy leaves helps prevent disease and maintain a nice-looking cabbage patch.
Harvest and Storage
Cabbage is best harvested when the heads feel firm and round, but are still green and actively growing. Leaving it in the ground too long can lead to oversized heads that are woody and more bitter. To harvest, push down or break the outer leaves to expose the head for a clean cut. Use a sharp garden knife to cut it right at the base, avoiding slicing into the head itself.
Store cabbage right around 32°F at 95% to 98% humidity with plenty of airflow. The heads store great in a crisper drawer or in perforated plastic bags in a cooler. Cabbage can hold for 3-6 months under the right conditions, which is why it has been such a staple crop for nordic cultures for centuries. When pulling cabbage out of storage, simply peel off any wilted outer leaves to use the delicious inner parts of the head.
This nutritious and diverse staple crop comes in more shapes, sizes, colors, and performance packages than you could possibly imagine! Plant breeders have worked for centuries to create the crisp layered cabbage heads we all love, and modern varieties take yielding, split-resistance, disease-resistance, and flavor to the next level.
Pick one or a few of these incredible cabbage seed varieties to add diversity to your garden. And don’t worry: cross-pollination is not an issue! You can grow as many different types of cabbage as you’d like to throughout the season.
Green Cabbage Varieties
Green does not mean bland or boring. Whether it’s flavor, texture, weather tolerance, or disease resistance, these classic cultivars each have unique qualities that make them stand out from the crowd.
- ‘Typhoon’: This large cabbage is excellent for fresh eating, storage, and making sauerkraut (thanks to its lower moisture content). It requires a lot of space (ideally 18” between plants) but yields massive 10 pound heads that are resistant to thrips and beautifully uniform. 98 days.
- ‘Farao’: An early spring cabbage with a gorgeous deep green color and delicious flavor. The heads average about 3 pounds and have tender, crisp, thin leaves with a mild sweet flavor. They hold in the field and are resistant to splitting. 65 days.
- ‘Tendersweet’: The perfect midsize choice, ‘Tendersweet’ has slightly flattened heads that stand or stack on top of each other without the risk of splitting. The leaves are extra thin and tender, with a sweet and crisp flavor. Some cooks enjoy these large soft leaves for wraps as well. This variety is adapted for spring, summer, and fall harvests. 71 days.
- ‘Tropic Giant’: If you live in a southern climate, this is the cabbage for you. It is resistant to heat, humidity, cracking, and more. You can plant ‘Tropic Giant’ in spring, summer or fall. It is even resistant to black rot, Fusarium, and other diseases. This variety is super resilient and eager to please. 80 to 90 days.
Add a little extra color and an antioxidant punch to your coleslaws with red or purple cabbage. These varieties have been bred specifically for their beautiful fuchsia to deep burgundy color. Red cabbage is known for its exceptional flavor and higher vitamin content.
- ‘Buscaro’: This late maturing variety is great for fall fresh eating or processing to preserve. The heads average about 5 pounds, with an oval-round shape and nice flavor for slaws or salads. The taller plants have great air circulation for gardens prone to excess moisture or disease problems. 98 days.
- ‘Ruby Perfection’: The best-of-the-best for fall red storage cabbages. These heads are medium sized, dense, uniform, and well-wrapped. They hold well in the field or throughout winter in a cooler. They are perfect for late summer plantings to harvest in late fall. Bred for resistance to thrips. 85 days.
- ‘Omero’: A midseason purple cabbage with vibrant color and an oval shape. The flavor is sweet to peppery. Can be planted regularly for full-size 3 pound heads, or densely for mini heads. 73 days.
- ‘Charleston Wakefield’: One of the most heat tolerant green cabbage, these cone-shaped heads average 4-6 pounds and grow easily in gardens throughout the U.S. This open-pollinated heirloom has been around since the 1800s and excels in both performance and flavor. 70-80 days.
Best Savoy Cabbage
Savoy is simply a fancy word for “crinkly” or “curly” cabbage. Originally from Italy, these types are lighter and less dense, but still create full heads that slice easily. Savoy cabbage has a more mild flavor that is sweet and tender for raw eating.
- ‘Famosa’: One of the best midseason savoy cabbages, ‘Famosa’ is a gorgeous bluish-green cabbage with a golden-tinted interior full of tender sweet leaves. Heads average 2-4 pounds. It has some resistance to downy mildew. 81 days.
- ‘Deadon’: A gorgeous magenta savoy with a light green interior. The outer leaves get darker in cold weather. It yields very sweet, delicious flavored cabbages that are medium-sized and firm. Resistant to Fusarium. 105 days.
- ‘Alcosa’: This early savoy is crinkly, blue-green, and medium sized at 2-4 pounds per head. The interior is dense but fluffy and slightly yellow. Great for mini or full size production. Flavor gets better in cold weather. 72 days.
Best Storage Cabbage Varieties
Storage cabbage is grown specifically for its ability to last through the winter. When properly washed and bagged (preferably in a perforated breathable plastic bag), these cabbages can last for months and months. Whether you have a cool root cellar or a large crisper drawer, storage cabbage offers nutritious greens all winter long. Many types can even be stored in the garden. depending on your climate!
- ‘Storage No. 4’: A classic storage cabbage bred in New York state, this cultivar tastes delicious even after months of storage. It will still head up under stress from the weather or low fertility. The heads firm up quickly and can enlarge to 4 to 8 pounds. Flavor is far better than supermarket green cabbages. 95 days.
- ‘Brunswick’: One of the original German heirloom storage cabbages, these massive heads can hold all winter long. This variety is especially cold hardy and needs a lot of space (at least 18” apart) for spring or fall production. 85-95 days.
- ‘SuperStor 112’: This high yielding storage variety grows very clean (easy to remove the wrappers that protect the head from excess dirt) and has a vigorous upright growth habit. Best adapted for late summer plantings. 112 days.
Best Napa Cabbage Cultivars
Popular in Chinese and Japanese dishes, napa cabbage is a sweeter elongated version of cabbage. These oval heads are mild, tender, and fluffy like a savoy. Sometimes called Chinese celery, napa cabbage is often used to fill dumplings or toss in stir-fries, but it is also delicious raw.
- ‘Bilko’: This full-size organic napa produces 12” heads that are dark green and widely adaptable. The variety is slow to bolt and has a nice mild, sweet flavor. Resistant to Fusarium and club root. 54 days.
- ‘Merlot’: Probably the most gorgeous cabbage you’ll ever grow! This vibrant fuschia and burgundy colored napa cabbage tastes as good as it looks. It has been improved from its original ‘Red Dragon’ line and yields bulky, dense heads up to a foot long. However, this variety is susceptible to internal tip burn in hot weather and bolting when under cold stress. ‘Merlot’ makes a great mid-season stunner crop, planted when nighttime temperatures are consistently over 50°F. 60 days.
- ‘Aichi’: These blocky mid-season heirlooms come straight from Japan. They love the cool shoulder seasons and produce succulent mid-ribs and mild, tender leaves. 70 days.
Pests and Diseases
Like all brassicas, cabbage is, unfortunately, subject to some annoying pests and pathogens that love their tender leaves as much as we do. So many of our garden crops are in the Brassicaceae family, therefore, crop rotation and the diversification of varieties is crucial for preventing all of these issues in your cabbage crops. A healthy, rich soil microbiology also contributes to robust plants that are less susceptible to attacks.
These tiny shiny beetles will wreak havoc on your cabbage leaves and other brassicas. The tiny irregular holes can stunt plants and cause unsightly yields. In extreme cases, flea beetles will kill your brassica crops.
The easiest way to prevent flea beetles is simply to exclude them from the cabbage plants altogether. Do this with a light row cover draped over the plants from the very start. You can secure row cover with sandbags, bricks, or rocks. Some people use hoops to create low tunnels for the fabric to rest on, but I find that cabbage is low-growing enough to just drape it over the top.
Other preventative options include kaolin clay, talcum powder, or soapy water. Use sticky traps to monitor populations. Remove weeds and old crop debris to keep the garden clear of breeding habitats.
If you have a flea beetle infestation, you can try blasting the leaves with water or spraying a diluted neem solution on the surfaces. You can also release biological control agents like Microctonus vittatoe wasps that eat flea beetles. Often the best course of action is just replanting in a different part of the garden and protecting with row cover.
If you notice your cabbage plants looking bronze-colored, blistered, or scarred, you may be dealing with damage from thrips. These super tiny (less than 2mm long) insects are yellow to brownish flying insects that usually appear in the dry summer season. They puncture leaves and suck out the sap, causing brownish or blistering foliage, often severely weakening the cabbage plant in the process or making the heads too nasty to eat.
Diluted neem oil (about 4 teaspoons to one gallon of water, plus a teaspoon of natural soap) is the easiest organic way to get rid of thrips. Spray it directly on the affected leaves, covering the surface. There are also some thrip-resistant varieties available.
Peronospora parasitica is the oomycete pathogen that causes the disease known as downy mildew. This fungus-like organism mostly attacks cabbage and its brassica cousins like broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts.
Infected leaves start yellowing or paling, eventually growing a fluffy texture and brownish-yellow lesions. Downy mildew thrives in excessively moist conditions, so you should always avoid overhead irrigation on cabbage.
Copper fungicides are available, however, I wouldn’t recommend them for home gardeners due to the risk and expense. Because the spores survive in the soil, crop rotation is often the most important recommendation for preventing downy mildew.
You should always rotate brassicas around your garden and alternate them with other crops. It also helps to increase the spacing and airflow between plants. Resistant varieties are another great option.
Club root is a nasty disease unique to brassicas. Infected plants get super stunted, wilted, and grow thick, mutated, club-shaped roots. Club root can wipe out your cabbage crop and cause premature blackening or decaying of the roots.
Unfortunately, club root has no cure. Infected plants should be removed and burned or disposed of. Always source quality disease-free transplants or grow your own seedlings. Maintain a healthy soil ecosystem to outcompete pathogens.
Use only high-quality, biologically rich compost that has been thoroughly heated (reached at least 148°F). These are all preventative methods, but ultimately, you should avoid planting brassicas in parts of your garden where club root has been found.
Cabbage is most coveted for its tender, folded leaves that can be used in coleslaws, salads, sautees, roasts, and stir-fries. It is also very popular for fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi. Cabbage leaves have been used for various herbal uses such as engorged mammary glands during breastfeeding or as a tonic for stomach ulcers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is cabbage easy to grow?
Cabbage is a hardy annual brassica that is easy to grow in a variety of climates. The most important part of growing a successful crop is planting during the proper seasonality to ensure ideal temperatures. This is a cool-weather crop that is mostly grown in spring or fall.
What is the best way to grow cabbage?
The best way to grow cabbage is to start with high-quality seedlings transplanted into the garden 2-4 weeks before the last spring frost. Prepare well-drained, fertile soil with lots of compost and a slightly alkaline pH from the addition of eggshells or bone meal. Cabbage plants need to be spaced at least 12-18” between plants and 18-24” between rows.
How long does it take to grow a full cabbage?
Most varieties take 70 to 100 days to grow to full size. Miniature cabbage heads can be grown in 60-70 days at closer spacing.
How long does it take for a cabbage head to form?
Depending on the variety, cabbage heads begin to form 60-70 days from the time of seeding. The initial plant growth will be mostly foliage and heads begin forming in the latter third of the plant’s life. A full head can take 3-4 weeks to firm up for harvest. Cabbage requires cool weather to form a full head.
Cabbage is a remarkably diverse, nutritious, and versatile crop for your garden and kitchen. Homegrown cabbage is a rewarding cool-weather crop that is mostly hands-off after planting. Almost anyone can grow cabbage as long as they prepare rich soil, provide drip or soaker hose irrigation, ensure proper spacing, and plant only during the cool seasons.
Best of all, this crop can be stored all winter long even in the coldest climates. Whether you’re craving fermented sauerkraut or fresh coleslaw, cabbage is a staple for any gardener.