How to Grow and Care for Cabbage

cabbage growing in the garden

The Spruce / Autumn Wood

Cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is a leafy green vegetable that comes in a densely packed head. Several cabbage cultivars vary in appearance, including ones with curly leaves, purple coloring, and ornamental cabbage varieties bred for their looks and not for food. Cabbage is technically a biennial crop, flowering and going to seed in its second season as it completes its life cycle. Most gardeners grow it as an annual and harvest it within one growing season for peak quality. This cool-season vegetable should be grown either in the spring or fall, and it has a relatively fast growth rate.

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Common Name  Cabbage 
Botanical Name  Brassica oleracea
Family Brassicaceae
Plant Type  Vegetable, biennial, annual
Mature Size  1–2 ft. tall, 1–2 ft. wide
Sun Exposure  Full
Soil Type  Loamy, well-drained 
Soil pH  Acidic, neutral
Hardiness Zones  2–11 (USDA)
Native Area  Europe

How to Plant Cabbage

When to Plant

Cabbage is a cool-weather crop that can be planted outdoors a few weeks before your area's last spring frost as long as the soil is workable. It can't take temperatures higher than 80 F; it will begin to wither or bolt in the heat.

You can start seeds indoors around six to eight weeks before your area's projected last spring frost date. You can also plant seeds in the garden in the late summer after the hottest weather has passed for a fall harvest.

Selecting a Planting Site

Choose a sunny spot in the garden with good soil drainage for your cabbage. Avoid planting near other Brassica species, such as broccoli, as they can attract the same pests and diseases. Container growth is also an option for cabbage, though it can result in a smaller yield.

Spacing, Depth, and Support 

Plant seeds about 1/4 inch deep. Thin seedlings to around 18 inches to 2 feet apart. No support structure will be necessary. More space will generally result in larger heads. 

Cabbage Plant Care

Light

Full sun, meaning around six hours of direct sunlight on most days, is best for cabbage. But it also can tolerate light shade, especially in warm climates. 

Soil

Cabbage prefers a loamy, well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. Mix some compost into the soil before planting. In addition, a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH is best.

Water

Cabbage needs consistent soil moisture to produce crisp and juicy heads. Irregular watering can result in a bitter taste or misshapen heads. Water is necessary to keep the soil lightly moist but never soggy. About an inch of water per week should be sufficient, though you might need more if you have very fast-draining soil. Adding a layer of mulch around your cabbage will help to retain soil moisture.

Temperature and Humidity

Cabbage prefers mild temperatures and grows best at around 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover your plants to protect them if the temperature drops below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Cabbage will also start to struggle once the temperatures reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Humidity generally isn’t an issue for cabbage as long as its soil moisture needs are met.

Fertilizer

Cabbage is a heavy feeder. After planting, side-dress with compost every few weeks to keep the soil rich. Or use an organic vegetable fertilizer that has an even balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (10-10-10 NPK). Follow the fertilizer's instructions on the label.

Pollination

Bees and other pollinators help to pollinate the flowers of cabbage plants. However, if you are growing cabbage as an annual, your plants won't produce the flower spikes that require pollinating. Those come in the plant's second year.

cabbage growing in a garden
The Spruce / Autumn Wood 
closeup of cabbage
The Spruce / Autumn Wood 

Types of Cabbage

There are several cultivars of cabbage, including:

  • 'Drumhead': Produces large, blue-green heads with savory leaves
  • 'Early Jersey Wakefield': Produces 2- to 3-pound heads that are resistant to splitting
  • 'January King': Is a purple and green cabbage that is extremely frost-hardy
  • 'Murdoc': Has a pointed head and tender, sweet leaves
  • 'Blue Vantage': Is known to be a disease-resistant variety

Cabbage vs. Lettuce

Cabbage and lettuce both are leafy green vegetables that can grow in heads. However, they’re not members of the same plant family and have some clear differences. For one, cabbage generally has a stronger taste than lettuce and more minerals; meanwhile, lettuce is odorless and has higher water content. Both have vitamins and nutritional value, although different types. Both develop many layers of leaves, but cabbage leaves tend to be tougher than lettuce leaves. Lettuce can also withstand warmer conditions than cabbage.

Harvesting Cabbage

The time it takes for cabbage to be ready to harvest depends on the variety. But in general, it requires about 70 days from the time of planting. Once the heads are fully formed and firm to the touch, they are ready to be harvested. If you leave heads for too long, you risk them splitting.

You can pull up the entire plant or use a sharp knife to cut the head at its base. If you go with the second method, you might get a second harvest from your plant but with smaller heads.

Bring the harvested head indoors as soon as possible. The head can be wrapped in plastic and stored in the refrigerator for about two weeks. It also can be stored in a root cellar where the temperature is between 45 degrees Fahrenheit and freezing for approximately three months. Cabbage can be used fresh or cooked, but wash it well before eating.

How to Grow Cabbage in Pots

If you don’t have the garden space or adequate soil conditions for cabbage, try growing cabbage in a container. Select a pot that’s at least a foot wide and deep. An unglazed clay container is ideal because it will allow excess soil moisture to evaporate through its walls. Ample drainage holes in the container are a must. Use a fast-draining organic potting soil made for vegetables. 

Pruning

Cabbage generally does not need pruning. However, if you spot any broken or withering leaves that are dragging or falling off, tear them off or remove them with pruning shears to hinder pests and diseases from infesting or infecting the plant.

Propagating Cabbage

Because most people treat cabbage plants as annuals, their plants don’t produce seeds for them to collect and propagate. If you don't have seeds, you can regrow them from scraps. This salvage is an easy way to get more from your harvest. You'll need a shallow dish, water, and a brightly lit location. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Take the bottom from your cabbage head, and place it in a shallow dish of water (stem side down). Put the dish in bright, indirect light.
  2. Change the water every few days.
  3. You should see new leaves growing within a week, and roots might even start forming on the underside.
  4. Harvest the leaves as needed, as they won't grow huge. You won't get a brand new head from this growing method.

How to Grow Cabbage From Seed

A heating mat won’t be necessary when starting seeds indoors since seeds can germinate in cool temperatures. Gently press the seeds into a seed-starting mix, just barely covering them. They should not be covered by more than 1/2-inch of soil. There are two methods of planting seeds: Plant seeds 18 to 24 inches apart or scatter the seeds on the soil and then pull out the extra seedlings that are too close together. Gently pull out the unwanted seedlings, leaving the healthiest in place. If you plant them closer, the heads will be smaller.

Overwintering

Because cabbage is mainly grown as an annual, you won't need to worry about overwintering your plants. But if you're expecting a cold snap before your plants are ready to harvest, protect them by covering them with row covers.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Unfortunately, many problems can plague cabbage. Cabbage worms and cabbage loopers are the leading pest threats. They will munch holes throughout the leaves. Their coloring allows them to blend in with the cabbage, but they can be handpicked easily if you can see them. Slugs and cutworms also might attack your cabbage.

Several fungal diseases, including clubroot, downy mildew, and black rot, can affect cabbage. Once your cabbage is infected, there's not much you can do besides removing the affected plants. But you can help prevent problems by choosing disease-resistant varieties and not growing cabbage in the same spot each year, as fungal spores can remain in the soil.

FAQ
  • Is cabbage easy to grow?

    Cabbage is a relatively easy crop to grow as long as you get the plant's moisture needs right. You'll also have to be on the lookout for pests and diseases.

  • How long does it take to grow cabbage?

    Certain cabbage varieties can be planted earlier or harvested sooner. But in general, it takes around two months to grow a harvestable head.

  • Does cabbage come back every year?

    Cabbage is a biennial, completing its life cycle after two growing seasons. However, the heads are harvestable in one growing season, and the quality typically declines after that.