Cabbage is packed with vitamins.
Cabbage is a hardy vegetable that grows especially well in fertile soils. There are various shades of green available, as well as red or purple types. Head shape varies from the standard round to flattened or pointed. Most varieties have smooth leaves, but the Savoy types have crinkly textured leaves.
Cabbage is easy to grow if you select suitable varieties and practice proper culture and insect management. Always regarded as a good source of vitamins, cabbage recently has been shown to have disease-preventive properties as well.
When To Plant
Transplant early cabbage soon enough that it matures before the heat of summer. Many varieties are available and two or three varieties with different maturities can provide harvest over a long period. Hardened plants are tolerant of frosts and can be planted among the earliest of cool-season garden vegetables.
Cabbage is easily transplanted from either bare-root or cell-pack-grown plants. Late cabbage must be started during the heat of mid-summer, but it develops its main head during the cooling weather of fall. It may be transplanted or seeded directly in the garden.
In summer, if possible, place seed flats or seedbeds where some protection from the sun is available, either natural or artificial. Try especially hard during this season to transplant on cloudy, overcast or rainy days for minimizing shock from the direct sun of summer.
Spacing & Depth
- Space plants 12 to 24 inches apart in the row, depending upon the variety and the size of head desired. The closer the spacing, the smaller the heads.
- Early varieties are usually planted 12 inches apart in all directions. Early varieties produce 1-to-3-pound heads and later varieties produce 4-to-8-pound heads.
- Sow cabbage seed 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep.
- Keep the seeds moist and thin or transplant the seedlings to the desired spacing.
- The plants removed may be transplanted to another row or flat.
- Use starter fertilizer when transplanting and side-dress with nitrogen fertilizer when the plants are half grown.
- Cultivate shallowly to keep down weeds.
- Ample soil moisture is necessary throughout the growing season to produce good cabbage. Irrigation is especially important in fall plantings to help the young plants withstand the intense sunlight and heat of summer and to supply the developing heads with sufficient water to develop quickly.
- A side dressing of nitrogen fertilizer when plants are half-grown is advisable.
Common Problems Growing Cabbage
Yellow or fusarium wilt is a relatively common disease that causes the leaves of plants to wilt and die. The first sign of the disease is yellowing and browning of the lower leaves. The plants are stunted before wilting occurs. Grow yellows-resistant (YR) or yellows-tolerant varieties. Most modern hybrids have this tolerance or resistance bred into them.
Blackleg and black rot are two diseases that cause severe losses. The plants may be stunted, turn yellow and die. Blackleg is named for the black cankers on the stem. The taproot often rots away. Black rot can be recognized by large, V-shaped, yellow-to-brown areas in the leaves, starting at the leaf edge. The veins turn black. Soft rot usually follows black-rot infection.
- Control is essentially the same for blackleg and black rot. Both diseases are spread by seed, transplants and insects. Buy seed that has been hot-water treated to kill the disease organisms. Do not buy transplants that are wilted, are an unhealthy shade of green, or have black spots on the stems or leaves.
When you find diseased plants in the garden, collect the leaves, stems and tops; and burn or dispose of them. Do not put diseased plants into the compost pile. Avoid cultural practices (crowding, overwatering, planting in poorly drained soil and inadequate insect control) that support the disease organisms of black rot and blackleg. If possible, grow black-rot-resistant varieties.
Continue control of cabbage worms and other pests. If this control cannot be maintained, remove and destroy or compost the stumps, because they serve as a breeding ground for diseases and insect pests.
Cabbage can be harvested any time after the heads form.
- For highest yield, cut the cabbage heads when they are solid (firm to hand pressure) but before they crack or split.
- When heads are mature, a sudden heavy rain may cause heads to crack or split wide open. The exposed internal tissue soon becomes unusable.
- Harvest and salvage split heads as soon as possible after they are discovered.
In addition to harvesting the mature heads of the cabbage planted in the spring, you can harvest a later crop of small heads (cabbage sprouts). These sprouts develop on the stumps of the cut stems.
- Cut as close to the lower surface of the head as possible, leaving the loose outer leaves intact.
- Buds that grow in the axils of these leaves (the angle between the base of the leaf and the stem above it) later form sprouts.
- The sprouts develop to 2 to 4 inches in diameter and should be picked when firm.
Selection and Storage
Harvest large, unsplit heads of green cabbage. Look for tight, heavy heads, free of insects and decay. Fresh, uncut heads of cabbage can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Cover loosely with a plastic bag or use perforated bags. Do not wash cabbage before storing, the extra moisture will hasten deterioration.
- Green cabbage: Green cabbage is sometimes called Dutch White. The outer leaves are dark green and the inner leaves are smooth and pale to medium green. If you plan to eat the cabbage raw, use within a few days. Cabbage that you plan to cook can be stored in the refrigerator for about two weeks.
- Savoy cabbage: Crinkly, with waves of blue-green leaves, Savoy cabbage is a beautiful sight growing in the garden. These thin, richly flavored leaves are ideal served raw in salads or cooked. Cooked Savoys do not have the strong sulfur odor of green cabbage. Savoy only keep for about 4 days in the refrigerator so buy it when you plan to use it.
- Red cabbage: This variety is usually smaller and denser than heads of green cabbage. The flavor of red cabbage is slightly peppery and it is very susceptible to color change. Cook red cabbage with vinegar (or other acidic ingredient) or it will turn an ugly blue-gray color. Always use stainless steel knives and cookware when preparing red cabbage to prevent color changes.
Questions & Answers
Q. What can I do to prevent my cabbage heads from splitting?
A. Splitting is caused by the pressure of excessive water taken up after the heads are solid. Cutting the roots (spading on two sides of the plant) or breaking the roots (lifting and twisting the head to one side) can often reduce excessive splitting or bursting, but it also damages the plant and requires that the head be harvested relatively soon.
Q. What causes cabbage to develop seedstalks rather than solid heads?
A. Cabbage plants "bolt" (form premature seedstalks) when they are exposed to low temperatures (35 to 45 degrees F) for extended periods. Such chilling may happen if plants are set out too early or if an unseasonable blast of cold assaults the garden. After the plants have stems as large as a pencil, they are subject to this "cold conditioning," that initiates the flowering response.
Q. What is flowering cabbage?
A. Nonheading varieties of cabbage (similar to flowering kale) have been developed for ornamental uses. They have colorful white, pink or red rosettes of leaves surrounded by green or purple outer leaves. Most colorful during cool fall weather, they should be started in early summer to midsummer and set out with fall and winter plantings of regular, heading varieties of cabbage. Flowering cabbage (and flowering kale) are edible as well as ornamental.
Q. Why do butterflies fly around my cabbage plants?
A. Those butterflies (white or brown) are probably the moths of cabbage worms. They lay eggs on the plants. The eggs hatch into the caterpillars that cause considerable damage unless controlled. Most control strategies are aimed at the developing larvae rather than the mature moths themselves.
Q. What causes large, lumpy swellings of my cabbage roots? The plants also are stunted.
A. Swellings and distorted roots on stunted, wilted plants may be symptoms of clubroot disease. This disease is caused by a fungus that remains in the garden soils for many years once it becomes established. It is spread by movement of infested soil and infected transplants. Other related cole crops (like broccoli and cauliflower) also may become infected. If you suspect that you have clubroot disease in your garden, ask your local Extension office for help. If, in fact, you have clubroot in a location, destroy infected plant parts (including the roots) and for at least 4 years avoid planting any member of the cabbage family there, including radishes, turnips and ornamental relatives of cabbage.
Preparing Cabbage for Exhibition
Former Extension specialist Jim Schmidt demonstrates how to properly prepare cabbage for exhibition.