How to Grow Cabbage: Your Complete Guide

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Popular around the world for use in culinary dishes, fresh, cooked and pickled, cabbage is a popular food source and fairly easy to grow! If you’ve always wanted to try growing your own veggies, cabbage is a great place to start! As long as you provide this cool growing plant with its basic growing requirements, you will be rewarded with a bountiful harvest!

In this guide, we discuss the botanical classification of cabbage, its native range, properties, and how to grow this cool vegetable from seed and by transplanting.

So, without further ado, let’s get on with it!

Cabbage: botanical classification, native range and characteristics

House cabbage is a descendant of wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) and several varieties exist. The botanical name for cabbage depends on the variety, but always begins with Brassica oleracea Var. (Insert variety name such as Head for red and green cabbage or Sabauda for savoy cabbage).

The original descendant of these domesticated varieties, wild cabbage is native to the eastern Mediterranean and southern and western Europe. Farmers began domesticating wild cabbage over 2,000 years ago, resulting in domesticated varieties. This domestication process occurred in several regions throughout the wild cabbage range, resulting in a wide variety of domesticated forms.

Today, domesticated cabbage takes various forms, such as red cabbage, kale, Chinese cabbage, and savoy cabbage. Red and kale both form dense heads with tightly packed leaves. Savoy cabbage looks similar to kale but has a looser head with much more curled leaves. Chinese cabbage forms an elongated head with ruffled leaves and thick white veins.

Savoy cabbage looks similar to kale but has a looser head and ruffled leaves.

How to grow cabbage

Although there are different strains, you can follow the same general growing recommendations to ensure a healthy, productive harvest. In order for your plants to thrive, it is important to know the appropriate growing zones, ideal soil and sunlight conditions, watering and fertilizer requirements, and knowing how to plant these vegetables from seed and how to transplant them.

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Below we go into detail about each of these topics.

Eligible USDA growing zones for cabbage

Because cabbage can grow in both spring and fall, you can grow this plant in USDA hardiness zones 3-12. When you plant, however, depends heavily on your climate zone, since cabbage, like many other cabbages, is a cool-growing vegetable. If you live in zones 7-12, you will likely need to focus on growing a fall crop, as starting a spring crop in these warm zones can mean your crop suffers from the heat of summer.

How to Grow Cabbage: Ideal Soil Conditions

In general, most cabbage varieties prefer to grow in fertile, well-drained, moist, and slightly acidic soil (6.0-6.8 pH). Some varieties, like red cabbage, are more adaptable to growing in less than ideal soil types like clay. Depending on the strain you’re growing, you may need to amend your soil with well-aged compost to improve soil structure and encourage a healthier microbiological population in the soil.

For clay soils, this may involve plowing and working compost and sand into the top 6 inches of soil, or you can focus on building healthy soil on top of the compacted soil. You can also incorporate gypsum (calcium sulfate) to increase aggregation. For sandy soil, incorporating compost into the soil is usually an easier and more successful endeavor, so you probably won’t need to build on that type of soil.

Cabbage prefers slightly acidic soil and full sun
Most cabbage varieties prefer to grow in fertile, well-drained, moist and slightly acidic soil and thrive with 6 hours of full sun.

Ideal sunlight conditions

All cabbage varieties prefer to be grown in at least 6 hours of full sun. This is especially true if you are planting a spring crop. If you live in a particularly sunny area with warmer fall temperatures, your best bet for a fall harvest is to plant your cabbage in a spot that receives full morning sunlight, followed by light afternoon shade.

How to grow cabbage: watering requirements

Cabbage does best when watered deeply, but rarely. This is in contrast to frequent but light watering. So try to provide 1-2 inches of water per week on a schedule of 2-3 waterings per week instead of every day. In gardening, an inch of water refers to the gallons needed to cover one square foot of garden space with one inch of water. So in the garden world, one inch of water comes out to about 0.5 gallons per square foot of bed area.

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Since cabbage likes to water a lot, you can cover the plants with mulching to help retain moisture. Mulching, or applying a layer of leaves, can also help keep clay soil from accumulating and caking into a hard surface during the summer months.

Fertilizer requirements

Cabbage is a heavy feeder and likes constant bursts of nutrients as it grows. Many gardeners have had success applying a balanced 10-10-10 NPK (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) fertilizer or fish emulsion every 2-4 weeks until cabbages begin to form. At this point, you should refrain from applying more fertilizer as it can cause splitting or cracking of the heads. Also, be sure to avoid high-nitrogen fertilizers as this will cause the plant to focus more on leaf development than head development.

How to Grow Cabbage: Sow seeds directly into your garden bed

Cabbage seeds can germinate in soil temperatures between 40 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, but the ideal temperature range is 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, expect germination in 4-7 days (depending on the variety).

For growers living in zones 2-6, you should have success direct sowing cabbage seeds for a spring harvest. Aim for direct sowing 2-3 weeks after the last expected frost. For a fall harvest, plant about 4-6 weeks before the last expected frost for your area.

Ideally sow seeds in moist, workable soil 1/2 inch deep and 3 inches apart. Once the seedlings are 4-6 inches tall, you can thin them out to 18 inches apart. The time to harvest depends on the variety of cabbage you are growing, as some cabbage varieties are considered early-season, mid-season, or late-season varieties.

Early cabbage grows quickly, produces smaller heads, and ripens early. Some early season varieties are ‘Parel’ and ‘Savoy Express’. These are ready to harvest within 50-55 days.

Mid-season cultivars often produce larger, dense heads and can be planted in spring but need to be well established before the summer heat sets in. If you live in a warmer area, mid-season varieties need to be planted indoors before the last frost and planted outdoors. These include varieties like ‘Primero’ and ‘Ruby Ball’, which are ready to harvest between 72 and 78 days.

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Late cabbage is not typically grown in the spring, but instead is grown for harvest in the fall and winter (depending on your climate zone). They are usually ready to harvest in 90-125 days and are well suited for storing in the root cellar over the winter. Varieties include ‘Kaitlin’ and ‘Danish Ballhead’.

cabbage seedlings
If you’re growing a spring cabbage crop in zones 7-12, it’s best to start your seeds indoors in late winter and then transplant them outside in spring.

How to plant cabbage seedlings in your garden bed

If you want to grow a spring crop but live in zones 7-12, it’s best to sow your seeds indoors in late winter or purchase young plants to prevent these cool-loving plants from maturing in the heat of summer.

If your seedlings have not been exposed to outdoor conditions, you must first acclimate them before transplanting. This greatly reduces the chances of your plants going into transplant shock. Once your seedlings have 4-5 mature leaves, you can harden them off with gradual exposure to outdoor conditions over a week. First, place them in a shady spot for a few hours on a mild, windless day with daytime temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Place them in the shade for 2 hours the next day, followed by 2 hours of sun exposure. Gradually increase this sun exposure until they can sit in full sun for at least 6 hours. If their environment still dips below 45 degrees at night, you should also gradually expose them to night time temperatures until they can sit outside all night.

Choose a mild, cloudy, not windy day for transplanting. You can also transplant in the evening, when the intensity of the sun decreases sharply. This also reduces the risk of transplant shock. Dig your holes about an inch deeper than the plant’s container depth and space your cabbages around 18 inches. The rows should be about 30-36 inches apart. Make sure you pre-wet the soil to prepare your plants for success. Water lightly every day for the first week to help them establish, then reduce to infrequent, thorough watering as directed in the watering section.


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