Napa cabbage (Brassica rapa Pekinensis), also referred to as Chinese cabbage, has a flavor that's sweeter and milder than traditional green cabbage. It's also no more difficult to grow than traditional cabbage, and it's very versatile in the kitchen.
Its large, oblong leaves are crinkled and very tightly wrapped around the head. The stalks are almost white, and the leaves are a very pale green. Napa cabbage flowers exhibit the familiar four-crossed yellow petals found in other members of the cruciferous family. However, it's best not to let cabbage bolt (send up a flower stalk) because it signals the end of leaf growth, and this is when the leaves become bitter. Napa cabbage has a moderate growth rate and can be planted in the early spring or midsummer.
|Common Name||Chinese cabbage, napa cabbage, Peking cabbage, celery cabbage|
|Botanical Name||Brassica rapa Pekinensis|
|Plant Type||Biennial, vegetable|
|Size||20 in. tall, 5 in. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun, partial sun|
|Soil Type||Loamy, sandy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral (6 to 7)|
|Bloom Time||Spring, fall|
|Hardiness Zones||4–7 (USDA)|
How to Plant Napa Cabbage
When to Plant
Napa cabbage is sometimes planted in the early spring for midsummer harvesting, with seeds often started indoors six weeks before the last frost. In most regions, it is more common to plant napa cabbage in midsummer for fall harvest. Whenever it is planted, the heads will be ready to harvest in 70 to 90 days after seedlings sprout.
Selecting a Planting Site
The planting site must have well-draining soil to prevent rot, and it should get at least partial sun. Make sure no nearby taller plants will grow throughout the season and cause too much shade for the cabbage. Container growth is also an option.
Spacing, Depth, and Support
Plant seeds roughly 1/4 inch deep. Seedlings should be spaced about 1 to 2 feet apart. In general, the more space you give them, the larger the heads will grow. A support structure isn’t necessary.
Napa Cabbage Care
Napa cabbage can grow in full sun or partial shade. It typically should get at least four to five hours of direct sun each day.
Napa cabbage likes an organically rich loamy or sandy soil with sharp drainage. A slightly acidic to neutral soil pH is best.
A fairly moist but not soggy soil is ideal for napa cabbage. Water when the soil feels dry about an inch or two down. Regular watering will help to encourage growth and to prevent the plant from going to seed early.
Temperature and Humidity
Napa cabbage can handle both warm and cool weather. In mild climates, it can grow year-round. However, if young plants experience temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, they might bolt. The ideal soil temperature is between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity typically isn't an issue as long as there is good air circulation around the plants to help prevent rot and fungal diseases.
When planting, mix compost into the soil to enrich it. Use a balanced fertilizer on young plants, following label instructions. But stop as you see the heads develop, as too much fertilizer can cause them to split.
Bees and other pollinators help to pollinate cabbage. However, unless you want your cabbage to go to seed, you don't have to worry about pollination.
Types of Napa Cabbage
There are multiple varieties of napa cabbage, including:
- 'Blues F1' has bluish-green leaves, is an early season variety, and is disease- and bolt-resistant.
- 'Chinese Express' features glossy leaves, bolt-resistance, and late-season ripeness.
- 'Monument' offers tall, narrow heads; resists bolting; and matures in 80 days.
Napa Cabbage vs. Bok Choy
Napa cabbage is very similar to bok choy, which is merely a different sub-species of Brassica rapa (the Chinensis group). In fact, both are often called Chinese cabbage. However, napa cabbage is said to have a milder taste than bok choy. And napa cabbage is larger than bok choy.
Harvesting Napa Cabbage
Napa cabbage is ready to harvest when the head feels firm. Gently squeeze the head to test it. A mature cabbage head that is ready to be picked will feel dense with little give. Start checking the heads at around 70 days after they've sprouted. To harvest, simply use a knife to cut the head at its base. You also can pull up the entire plant, roots and all, if you wish to clear the planting site. Wrapped in plastic, the head can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Napa cabbage is a very versatile vegetable in the kitchen. It can be used in recipes calling for either regular cabbage or bok choy. Individual leaves are often used as wrappers for steaming or blanching. It is great for a mild, Asian-inspired coleslaw, and it also makes a mean Korean pickled kimchi. Grilling brings out its natural sweetness.
How to Grow Napa Cabbage in Pots
Cabbage can be grown in containers, which is a great option if you’re short on garden space or have heavy, poorly drained soil. Use at least a 5-gallon container per cabbage plant, and make sure it has ample drainage holes. Unglazed clay is an ideal material because it will allow excess soil moisture to escape through its walls.
Cabbage plants generally don’t require pruning. However, if some leaves become damaged or are otherwise drooping and dragging on the ground, it’s best to trim them off. Otherwise, they can invite diseases and pests from the soil into the plant.
Propagating Napa Cabbage
Cabbage is one of the many vegetables that can be regrown from scraps. This is an inexpensive way to propagate your plant, and the process is extremely simple. Just note that the cabbage won't get as large as it would when growing in the ground. Here’s how:
- Cut off the bottom, leaving around an inch of the leaves.
- Place this piece with the base down in a shallow dish filled with water. Put the dish by a bright window.
- Replace the water every day or two. You should see root and leaf growth in about a week.
- In around two weeks, the leaves will have grown as large as they will get, so you can pick them off to eat or store.
How to Grow Napa Cabbage From Seed
Plant seeds around 1/4 inch deep every 6 inches or so. The seedlings can be thinned to at least a foot apart once they are roughly 5 inches tall. Make sure the soil remains moist but not soggy as the seeds germinate and seedlings grow. A layer of mulch can help to retain soil moisture and keep the roots cool.
Potting and Repotting Napa Cabbage
A well-draining, all-purpose potting mix is typically fine for cabbage, or use one that's specifically made for vegetable growth. It's best to plant seedlings in a large container right away, rather than having to repot and stressing the plant.
Even though cabbage is technically a biennial, meaning it completes its life cycle in two growing seasons, most gardeners grow it as an annual and harvest at the end of one growing season. That's because its quality can degrade in the second growing season. So overwintering isn't necessary. Harvest before frost in the fall.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
Napa cabbage doesn't share the advantage of the quick growth of many other greens. This makes it a target for pests and diseases, including clubroot, cabbage yellows, black rot, blackleg, cabbage worms, cabbage loopers, and flea beetles. Don't plant napa cabbage in a spot that had other Brassica species growing in it previously, as pathogens that can impact the genus can persist in the soil.
Is napa cabbage easy to grow?
Napa cabbage is fairly easy to grow as long as you can meet its environmental needs, including well-draining soil and even moisture.
How long does it take to grow napa cabbage?
Napa cabbage generally will be ready for harvesting starting 70 days after it sprouts.
Does napa cabbage come back every year?
Napa cabbage is a biennial typically grown as an annual, meaning it's harvested in one growing season.