Cabbage is a brassica crop — related to broccoli, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts — that thrives in cold. Because of its frost tolerance, cabbage is perfect for starting your gardening season early in spring or for extending it into the fall. If you want to grow cabbage in your garden, here’s what you need to know.
You can also download my How Do I Grow Cabbage? one-sheet and keep the free resource handy for your reference.
Where, When and How to Plant Cabbage
Cabbage isn’t just a cool-season crop — it’s a cold-season crop. It can tolerate frosts as cold as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, in hot weather, cabbage will “bolt,” which means it will send up a flower stalk before the plant is ready to harvest. A bolted cabbage will turn bitter and won’t form the head that gardeners desire.
To avoid bolting, cabbage planting should be timed for a spring crop or a fall crop. Note that fall-grown cabbage that matures in cool weather will be sweeter than spring-grown cabbage, and far less likely to bolt.
Cabbage seeds can be direct sown or started indoors. In regions with a short growing season, getting a head start indoors is the preferred method. Start seeds about four to six weeks before you plan to transplant the seedlings into your garden.
The key to a successful spring cabbage harvest is to plant seeds or seedlings early enough so they mature before the heat of summer sets in. If you’re directly sowing seeds, do so about four weeks before the last expected frost. If you’re starting seeds indoors, do so about 6 weeks before transplanting outdoors. Transplants are safe to plant outside after the last hard frost.
For fall-harvested cabbage, direct sow seeds 6 – 8 weeks before the first frost of autumn. If starting seeds indoors, allow about 6 weeks before transplanting outdoors.
In an area that gets full sun, plant seedlings or sow cabbage seeds into fertile, well-drained soil. A generous addition of compost worked into the top layer will work wonders to improve soil, but since cabbage is a heavy feeder, it also helps to supplement with a balanced organic fertilizer before planting.
The number of days that it takes for transplants to reach maturity is different from one variety to the next. Some varieties are ready to pick after 50 days, while others require 95-100 days, and many land somewhere in between. The seed packet will tell you the days to maturity, and it is important to make a note of it before throwing the seed packet away.
Cabbage seeds should be sown a half-inch deep. Plant seeds and seedlings according to the recommended spacing on the packet for the varieties you’re growing. Cabbage plants that are packed in too tightly may fail to form heads. Also, overcrowded plants will have inadequate air circulation, which will make them more prone to disease.
Once seeds have sprouted or seedlings are in the ground, add plenty of mulch. As always, mulch does a lot of good. But for cabbage, one of mulch’s biggest advantages is weed suppression. Cabbage has very shallow roots and doesn’t like to be disturbed. So the fewer weeds you have around those roots, the better.
If you plant all the same variety of cabbage at the same time, naturally, it’s all going to mature at the same time. So, a good way around that is to either stagger your planting times, or better yet, grow several varieties.
For a quick-maturing variety, try “Fast Vantage.” Bolt-tolerant “Pacifica” is a perfect choice for slaws and soups. For a little color in the garden and on the plate, try split-resistant and later-maturing “Ruby Ball,” a reliable and consistent favorite in field trials.
Cabbage Pests & Diseases
For cabbage to perform its best, it needs steady, uninterrupted growth — basically, a consistent, stress-free life. (Don’t we all!) For cabbage, a stress-less life means even moisture and minimal root disturbance.
Cabbage is so appealing to certain pests, they’ve been named after it: Cabbage loopers and cabbage worms are the most common cabbage pests, but slugs come in a close second. Aphids and flea beetles like cabbage too.
Be on the lookout for small white butterflies casing out your plants in mid-spring and early fall. These are cabbage butterflies, and when they flutter above your garden, that’s a telltale sign they’re looking for a place to lay their eggs, which will become the worms that eat the leaves.
Don’t let pest concerns dissuade you from growing cabbage. None of the pests mentioned are devastating, and I find easy, chemical-free control by covering plants with a lightweight, translucent floating row cover from the day I plant my cabbage in the garden. You don’t have to keep it on all the time (you can since cabbage is not dependent on pollinators to mature) but leave it on at least until the plant is well on its way and toughened up in the garden.
For cabbage worms and cabbage loopers specifically, you can use Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a biological control used in organic gardening. Bt is specific to caterpillars and non-toxic to other insects.
Diseases affecting cabbage include Alternaria black spot, black leg, ring spot, Botrytis stem blight, clubroot and downy mildew.
To lessen the occurrence of cabbage diseases, refrain from overhead watering. Wet foliage provides an ideal environment for many of these pathogens, so watering around the base of the plants is the preferred method.
If you find diseased cabbage in your garden, the best control method is to remove the affected plants to reduce the spread. It is important to practice crop rotation so any remaining pathogens will not infect plants in the next few seasons. These brassica-specific diseases will not affect other crops, so wherever you grew cabbage, plant a non-brassica crop in its place.
Cabbage heads are ready to harvest when they have grown to full size and firmed up. Instead of pulling out the cabbage plant entirely, cut off the head at the base of the plant. The remaining stem may even grow new heads. Make two cuts through the top of the remaining stalk, about ¼ inch deep (like a plus sign). These new heads won’t get as large, but if they have time to mature before heat or extremely cold temperatures set in, you could have a second harvest from the same plant.
What tricks do you use to grow cabbage successfully? Let us know in the comments below.
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Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
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