Growing Cabbages from Sowing to Harvest

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Growing cabbage

For lots of gardeners a vegetable plot isn’t complete without that ever-dependable staple: cabbage! Shredded into a slaw, stir-fried, steamed or baked, there’s not much you can’t do with cabbage. And with a little planning it’s even possible to enjoy cabbages year round, by planting a carefully curated succession of varieties suited to each season. So here’s how to do it!

Types of Cabbage

There’s a fantastic range of cabbage varieties to choose from, offering different shapes, colours and textures.

Cabbage heads, or hearts, can be rounded or conical, with leaves that are light green, dark green, red or purple. Red cabbages are popular for braising or pickling.

Some types have a smooth, almost glossy appearance, while others like the Savoy cabbage produce deeply crinkled leaves that are perfect for mopping up sauces or gravy.

Cabbages are grouped according to when they’re harvested. Spring cabbages, which may also be harvested young as ‘spring greens’, are ready from mid to late spring. Summer cabbages crop from summer into early autumn, while autumn cabbages and winter varieties cover the remainder of the year.

Savoy cabbages have a long harvest period stretching from autumn all the way through winter to early spring.

“Savoy
Savoy cabbages are exceptionally hardy

Where to Grow Cabbage

Many cabbage varieties are incredibly hardy and will tolerate below-freezing temperatures. For the healthiest growth they need an open, sunny site and rich soil. A bed improved with compost or well-rotted manure is ideal for these hungry feeders, who will appreciate a further boost in the form of an organic general-purpose fertiliser raked into the ground at planting time.

In a traditional crop rotation cabbages follow on from peas or beans, which naturally lock nitrogen away at their roots. Left in the ground when the crop is cleared, these roots will help to feed the cabbages that follow.

Unless your soil is naturally alkaline, sprinkle garden lime onto the soil either after you’ve dug it over, or rake it in at planting time.

How to Sow Cabbage

Cabbages may be started off in an outdoor seedbed to transplant once they’re bigger, or under cover into modules or pots, which also enables an earlier start to the season.

“Cabbage
Cabbages can be started in pots under cover for an earlier start

Their roots prefer firm soil, so prepare seedbeds by treading on the ground in a shuffling motion before raking to a fine tilth for sowing.

When you sow depends on what type of cabbage you’re growing. Summer cabbages are the first to be sown, in mid spring, followed by autumn and winter types later on in spring. Spring cabbages are sown from the second half of summer to harvest the following year.

Mark out drills about half an inch (1cm) deep and six inches (15cm) apart. You can use a string line to ensure nice, straight rows. Sow the seeds thinly along the row then cover over and water. Keep the soil moist. Thin the seedlings once they’re up to one every couple of inches (5cm).

Under cover, start seeds off in plug trays of all-purpose potting soil. Sow two to three seeds per cell about half an inch (1cm) deep. After they’ve germinated, thin to leave just one seedling per cell. Or sow into trays or pots then transfer the best seedlings into individual cells or pots to grow on.

“Newly
Transplant cabbages when they have at least three or four adult leaves

Transplanting Cabbage

The seedlings are ready to transplant about six weeks after sowing, by which time they should have grown at least three to four adult leaves. Make sure spring cabbages are transplanted no later than early autumn, so they can establish before winter bites.

Plant your seedlings into prepared ground. Leave about 18in (45cm) between each seedling. Additional rows of spring or summer cabbage should be set around the same distance apart, while autumn and winter types need a little more space between rows – about two feet (60cm) is ideal.

Firm your cabbages into the ground well, then water generously to settle the soil around the roots. Seedlings transplanted from a seedbed should be lifted up with as much soil around their roots as possible. This avoids unnecessary root disturbance, helping the seedlings to quickly adapt to their new growing positions.

“Cabbages
Netting protects cabbages from pests such as cabbage white butterflies

Caring for Cabbage

Cabbages are prone to attack from pigeons and caterpillars of the cabbage white butterfly, also known as cabbageworms. Wire mesh will protect seedlings against pigeons, but to stop butterflies from laying their eggs on the leaves it’s best to use netting during the summer months.

Another clever technique is to grow nasturtiums close by as a sacrificial crop, also known as a trap crop. Caterpillars prefer nasturtiums, so they’ll be more likely to eat these instead of your cabbages. Mint can be used to help deter flea beetles.

Continue to water cabbages as they grow. Ensure they have all the space and nutrients they need by carefully weeding between plants with a hoe or by hand. Winter cabbages are very hardy but during exceptionally cold weather they may need some form of cold protection such as a row cover tunnel or cloche. In very cold regions, growing cabbages in a greenhouse or cold frame is a great way to guarantee a winter-safe crop.

“Harvesting
Harvest cabbages once the heads have firmed up

How to Harvest Cabbage

Use a sharp knife to cut your cabbages once the heads have firmed up. Savoy and other winter cabbages benefit from a light frost to bring out their flavour. Spring cabbages may be harvested young and loose as greens for repeated cutting, or left to grow on to form a tight head of leaves. Either way is totally delicious!

Cabbages you’ve grown yourself are undeniably sweeter and crunchier than anything you can buy. And they go a long way in the kitchen too, more than earning them the space they need to grow. If you have a variety you’d particularly recommend, or perhaps another tip for growing cabbages, please share it in the comments section below.

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Comments

 
"One thing not mentioned in the video is that it helps to plant brassica seedlings deep, when transplanting to final site. I note that in the video you planted them with the first/non-true leaves well above ground. I've always planted mine at least as deep as those first leaves if not deeper. It help them establish a better root system and be less prone to being wind-blown. You might also have mentioned that when you harvest a cabbage, if you don't need the ground straight away for another crop, if they are cut off with a couple of sets of leaves left behind on the plant, left in the ground, the 'stump' will sprout 5 more mini cabbages whose leaves can be a very sweet, if not a large secondary harvest. "
Gerry on Friday 13 July 2018
"Hi Gerry. All very valuable advice, thank you so much for sharing. The stump re-sprouting tip is a very important one, because they regrow very quickly, so you get that second harvest without having to leave the stumps in the ground for many weeks on end. The leaves are just as tasty from this second harvest too."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 16 July 2018
"Hi, I live in Czech republic and there is now no registered variety of overwintering savvoy cabbage (we had Arkta some years preavious). Can you reccomend me some? Last winters were really warm so I am tempted to try my usual early spring variety, but then we had also week when temperatures dropped under -20°C.... Thanks, Dobby"
Dobby on Monday 23 July 2018
"Hi Dobby. That's very frustrating that there isn't a registered variety of overwintering Savoy cabbage. Are you able to buy seed from elsewhere to sow? One recommended variety of winter Savoy cabbage is 'Protovoy', which is recognised by the Royal Horticultural Society here in the UK as being particularly strong performing. However, different varieties are available in different countries, so you may need to consult closer to home for varieties available in your region."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 24 July 2018
"I grow minicole cabbages on my allotment they are easy to grow from seed can be spaced 12inches apart and will stand for 3 months when mature in the ground in perfect condition until you are ready to use them. These small round cabbages are just the right size for two people to eat and so there is no waste. I cover my cabbages with fine netting cloches from planting to harvest time in order to protect them and this ensures that I get a good crop."
Alan Wilkinson on Friday 17 August 2018
"Hi Alan. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Portion-sized cabbages are very handy for eating up in one meal."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 20 August 2018

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