Growing Cabbage

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Home grown fresh cabbage

If you've ever tried growing cabbage in your garden, you probably already know that it is a cold hardy plant that grows fast, has few pests, and tastes really good. If you are looking to find out how to grow cabbage, read on...

Cabbage plants are related to Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Kale, Kohlrabi, and Bok Choi. These plants are all in the Brassica (formerly Crucifixae) family. The old scientific family name came from the small cross shaped flowers they produce if you let them grow until they bloom.

Cabbage varieties are available in either shades of green, red, purple, and a variety of sizes from as small as a pound or two, up to 40 pounds. The world record cabbage is well over 120 pounds!

I love growing cabbage in my spring garden. Getting any kind of green plants into the garden, seems to help cure late winter cabin fever. I always seem to plant too much though, so we wind up giving it away, freezing it, making sauerkraut, as well as eating it fresh, none of which is necessarily a bad thing.

Growing Cabbage - Planting and Care

Planting cabbage usually takes place in the spring, although you can certainly grow it again in the fall garden too. You can start cabbage plants from seed indoors in late winter, or simply buy flats of started seedlings. I prefer to buy started seedlings for a time savings, but I have started seeds as well.

Cabbages aren't that particular about their soil conditions, but do best in loose, well drained sandy loam. I have seen them perform very well in heavy clay soil. The only thing that seems to stop them is being constantly soaked or in standing water.

Half grown rows of broccoli(left) and cabbage(right)

Plant cabbage plants in the early spring, well before the last frost. Cabbage plants are very cold hardy and can withstand temperatures down as low as 24°F, although a late hard freeze can kill tender young plants. I usually plant mine ( UDSA Zone 6a ) between the end of February and almost always by mid March (Beware the ides of March...). Use water soluble fertilizer to get your young plants off to a good start.

Space plants about 16 inches apart, because the mature plants get quite large and take a lot of space. Plant rows 36 inches apart, to allow you to be able to walk and work between the rows.

Plant the seedlings at the same soil level as they were originally in the flats or just a bit deeper. Planting them too deep may cause problems. Seed packets or flat tags usually tell how big to expect the heads to get, and how long they need to mature. This varies depending on the variety you choose to plant.

Keep young plants weeded and mulched with grass clippings or dry leaves initially, but as the plants get larger, their leaves will shade out nearly all weeds directly underneath the canopy. Continue to keep rows weeded or mulched with leaves or grass clippings.

Growing Cabbage - The Harvest

Cabbages mature within 60 - 90 days after planting depending on the variety you plant. Size depends on the variety of cabbage planted. The larger they get, the longer they need to grow.

Cabbage heads form in the center of the plant. Feel the heads as they form. Initially they will be soft, and will give when you squeeze it. As the head matures, it will get larger, and become firm to feel. Cut cabbage heads when they are full and firm.

Cabbage heads are actually the bud of the bloom stem, and if you left them to go to seed, the stem can be as tall as 6 feet high. Harvesting cabbage is a simple thing. Use a sharp knife to cut the leaves off below the head to help expose the stem, then cut the head away from the stem flush with the base.

Once you cut the heads, pull up the plants. They won't produce anything meaningful after that. Cabbage plants will form small side heads about the size of Brussels Sprouts after the original head has been cut, but these small heads are bitter and unpleasant to eat.

Growing Cabbage - Preserving the Harvest

Cabbage is great as a fresh vegetable, and will keep refrigerated for up to a month. Remove outer leaves and wash well before refrigeration. If you have problems with cabbage looper caterpillars, you can float the cabbage head in a bucket or sink full of water for a couple of hours to float them out of the head.

Cabbage is also easily frozen. Shredded cabbage can be blanched in boiling water for 2 minutes, cooled in ice water, drained and frozen. Vacuum packaging is the best method to keep air out and prevent freezer burn. It can be used all year in soups, coleslaw and my favorite - fried cabbage.

One of my favorite things to do with cabbage is making sauerkraut which can be eaten fresh or canned after fermentation is complete, and the flavor far exceeds anything you can buy in a store.

Growing Cabbage - Garden Pests

There a few pests that can damage your cabbage plants:

STARLINGS will on occasion break newly planted cabbage plants off even with the ground. They don't eat the plant after they break it off, they will just leave it laying on the ground for you to see.

If you have starling problems, you can try covering tender young plants with a light fabric or row tents. I prefer shooting or trapping the nasty critters. They're introduced nonnatives to the US, and are contributing to the decline of native cavity nesting birds like bluebirds, redheaded woodpeckers and purple martins, so I'll take out every one I get a chance to.

Cabbage Thief!

FURRY CRITTERS Rabbits and Squirrels like Cabbage, and will eat the leaves and outer portion of the heads given a chance. If you see a rabbit or squirrel eating your cabbage, try sprinkling the plants with (hot) red pepper powder. They can't stand the heat and will leave your plants alone after the first taste. You have to re-apply after any rain, because it washes off easily. If they continue to be a problem, consider live trapping and releasing them somewhere miles away from your garden.

CABBAGE LOOPERS Ever see a little white butterfly fluttering around your cabbage or broccoli plants? If you live in North America, this is most likely a cabbage looper butterfly. They lay their eggs on plants like cabbage, and the caterpillars eat the leaves. The damage they do is normally superficial and they can be washed off before eating or blanching. If you have a larger infestation try using a pesticide. Check with your local garden center or county extension agent to see what is effective (and legal) in your area.

Growing cabbage is an easy to grow spring garden vegetable. It matures quickly and depending upon the USDA plant hardiness zone you live in, you may be able to plant a summer crop where your spring cabbages were. If you're considering growing cabbage in your garden, give it a try. It's not difficult at all.

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Related Links:

freezing cabbage

making sauerkraut

UDSA Zone Map

Other Spring Vegetables:

growing peas

growing broccoli

growing lettuce

growing green onions

growing potatoes