Cabbage is one of the easiest cool-weather vegetables you can grow. And there’s nothing more delicious than fresh cabbage: crispy, sweet, and beautiful in reds and greens. Here’s everything you need to know about how to grow and harvest your own cabbage.
In general cabbages, like all members of the brassica genus (others include broccoli, kale, and spinach), are considered cool weather crops. They grow best in temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees F (10 and 21 degrees C) and will bolt and become bitter if exposed to prolonged temperatures above that range. (“Bolting” means the plant flowers and goes to seed.) On the other hand, cabbages harvested after a mild frost or two have a superior sweet taste.
Types of cabbage
All cabbages are classified as either “early cabbage” (70 to 100 days to maturity) or “late cabbage” (120 days to maturity). These groups contain a variety of different cabbage types:
Head cabbage are just what they sound like, the sort of cabbage, common in grocery stores, that grow on a thick stalk and form a cannon-ball-like head of densely packed leaves. Head cabbage comes in red and green varieties, the red generally sweeter in taste than the green.
These are the looser leaf cabbages found most often in stir fries and other Chinese cuisine. Bok Choy and Napa cabbage are a couple of the most common varieties of Chinese cabbage.
Savoy cabbages are similar to head cabbages, but their leaves are crinklier and hence their heads are less tightly formed. They are both tasty and attractive in the garden.
For summer harvest, plan on putting your cabbage transplants from the garden center, or seedlings you grow yourself, in the ground four weeks before the last frost date. If you are germinating your own seeds in flats, start them four to six weeks before that, so January to February in the South and March in the North. For fall and winter harvest, adjust your planning to have seedlings ready to transplant mid-July to early-September. Put the transplants in well-draining beds rich in organic material and do not plant where cabbage or other brassicas have grown in the previous three seasons. Because cabbage are heavy feeders, they do well following beans in the garden, since legumes act to fix nitrogen in the soil.
Food and water
You may want to fertilize before planting with a balanced organic mixture to make sure your soil has sufficient nitrogen. Keep cabbage watered so the soil is always moist (but not soaked). Alternate periods of dry and heavy rain or watering can cause the heads to split.
Disease and pests
A number of fungal diseases can attack your cabbages, and the best defense against these is mulching with high quality compost, rotating crops regularly, and planting disease-resistant varieties. Many pests also find cabbage as delicious as we do, including cabbage worms, cabbage loopers, cut worms, slugs, and the harlequin bug. Insecticidal soap regularly applied can help ward off these hungry creatures as can hand picking them off the cabbage daily. However, the most reliable method of pest control, and the only one that will protect against a heavy infestation, is to cover the cabbages, making sure to leave no places for the pests to slip in, with a lightweight, sun and water penetrable row cover.
It’s time to pick your cabbage when the heads are firm and the appropriate size for your variety. If you are growing for a winter crop, light frost won’t hurt, and could enhance, your cabbage, but don’t let it freeze. Pick by slicing the head away from the stalk with a sharp knife. Leave the stalk and root system in place and eat the mini cabbages that will grow off the mother stem as you would Brussels sprouts. Cabbage are wonderful consumed fresh from the garden or stored–up to six months for some varieties–wrapped in newspaper and kept in a root cellar or refrigerator.
Nothing beats the crispy sweetness of fresh cabbage–in slaw, soups, stews, or stir fries. And growing it yourself is rewarding and fun. Make it your goal this season to be harvesting cabbage through the summer and fall.
Looking for more great gardening ideas or recipes for your harvest? Check out the newest articles on My Garden Life.