One of our favorite cool weather crops is cabbage. It thrives in cool weather, and if you play your cards right and the weather cooperates, you can usually plant an early crop for fresh eating, and a late crop that you can have for winter storage. Cabbage is a winner with gardeners everywhere because it is delicious, healthy, and relatively easy to grow.
You can grow many different varieties of heirloom cabbages. There are early cabbages, mid-season cabbages, and late cabbage varieties. There are colorful greens, lovely whites, as well as deep purple cabbages. There are even mini cabbages!
You can buy transplants from a local source, but cabbages are also easy to grow from seed. To sow seeds indoors, plant them about a quarter-inch deep and around 2 inches apart. You will need to keep them in a sunny spot or under grow lights at an ideal temperature of around 60° – 70°F. They do best in moist soil.
Plant your seedlings in the garden slightly deeper than you had the plants starting indoors. Space the plants 6-12 inches apart and space your rows about 2 feet apart. Wide spacing will allow room for growing bigger heads of cabbage. However young and small cabbages tend to have a better taste. If you want a variety of both types, large and small, plant them around 6 inches apart and harvest every other one before they mature fully. This will let you stagger the harvest, alternating between a large head and a smaller head.
To prolong the harvest, stagger your plantings every two weeks. You will want to start your late crop in late summer. At this time, you may find that the late summer afternoon sun is still pretty intense. We recommend placing your late summer/early fall crop near a tall crop, such as pole beans to provide some afternoon shade. If this is not possible, you may want to plant your cabbage crop somewhere that receives morning sun but has partial afternoon shading.
Growing Tips and Tricks
- Early cabbages do best in a sandy, loamy soil, while later types prefer a heavier soil that retains moisture.
- About 3 weeks after planting outdoors, side-dress your cabbages with a rich compost or liquid organic fertilizer. (To side-dress means to apply the compost or fertilizer beside the plant along the row, not on top of the plant’s base.)
- Hand pull any weeds to avoid damaging cabbage’s shallow roots. Do not allow weeds to take over or they will choke off the growth of healthy cabbage heads.
- Use a mulch to keep the soil moist.
- Uneven watering can make the developing cabbage head split. If you see a cabbage head starting to crack open, twist the plant a half turn to pull and slightly dislodge the roots. This will slow the plant’s growth and discourage the plant from bolting.
- Avoid wetting the cabbage leaves, and instead water at the base. Wet leaves are prone to disease.
- As the cabbage matures, cut back on the water. If the leaves begin to yellow, provide a mid-season feeding of natural liquid fertilizer or compost tea.
Maggots, cabbageworms, cabbage loopers, and cutworms are the primary pests gardeners deal with when growing cabbages. Control as naturally as possible by picking off the bug by hand and killing the bug. Natural soap solutions may also work, but can change the pH of your soil.
Dark spots on leaves and stems are a sign of fungal disease. Foul smelling cabbage is also another sign of disease, perhaps black rot. Remove and destroy any plants who are seemingly affected by these diseases.
Good growing conditions are the best defense against cabbage crop problems. Another way to avoid cabbage problems is to make sure you thoroughly clean up the garden at the end of summer, removing all dead leaves, debris, and roots. This keeps the pests from having somewhere to hide!
When the heads are firm, harvest by cutting them off with a sharp knife. Leave stalks and roots to allow a second small crop to develop. Fresh cabbages offer the best of taste. However, you can keep the later season cabbages in a cool and moist place for up to 5-6 months.
Harvest Tip: Don’t know what to do with those split head, less-than-perfect, ugly cabbages? Make sauerkraut!