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How to Grow Cabbage

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.


I’ve been looking for ideas for my spring and fall gardens. There are more cool weather crops than I realized. Like . . . cabbage!

What is Cabbage?

Cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata) is a biennial plant that we grow as an annual. It is a brassica, related to cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts and kale. A close cousin is the Napa or Chinese cabbage. Cabbages are characterized by their “heads” which are just densely packed leaves. The leaves can be green, red (which is more purple) or white (actually a pale green). The heads vary in weight depending on the cultivar from 1 to 15 pounds. They are surprisingly very nutritious.

Red cabbage which is more purple than red

Red cabbage which is more purple than red

Common Cabbage Varieties

The most commonly grown cabbages are the green cabbages which are light to dark green and have slightly pointed heads. They mature earlier and have smaller heads making them attractive for small gardens. There are also the red cabbages which are used for pickling. They are often used in salads to add color. Dutch cabbages, also known as white cabbages, are pale green. They have large heads, 10 to 15 pounds, and store better than all the other varieties. The most spectacular cultivar is the Savoy cabbages with their heavily frilled leaves. Savoy cabbages are the most frost tolerant of the cabbages making them the best choice for fall gardens.

Savoy cabbage with its characteristic crinkly leaves.  They are more cold-hardy and do best grown in the fall.

Savoy cabbage with its characteristic crinkly leaves. They are more cold-hardy and do best grown in the fall.

How is Cabbage Eaten?

In the Middle Ages, cabbages were the mainstay of European diets. Humans naturally like variety in their diets so they prepared this vegetable in a myriad of different ways. They cooked it by steaming it, stewing it, braising it, or sautéing it. They also preserved it by either pickling it or fermenting it (think sauerkraut). They also ate cabbage raw, which is one my favorite ways of consuming cabbage, as in a slaw.

Medicinal Uses for Cabbage

Ancient peoples didn’t just eat cabbage, they also used it medicinally. In ancient times it was used as a laxative, an antidote for poison and to heal bruises. European folklore held that it could be used for sore throat, hoarseness, colic and rheumatism. In more modern times, the British used it to treat trench foot during WWI. They also used it as a compress for ulcers and abscesses on breasts. Modern science does confirm that cabbage leaves help reduce the pain of engorged breasts and to help with breastfeeding.

Dutch cabbage also known as white cabbage.  Their exceptionally large heads store better than other varieties.

Dutch cabbage also known as white cabbage. Their exceptionally large heads store better than other varieties.

How to Grow Cabbage From Seed

Cabbages are cool season crops that grow best in the spring and fall. Start your seeds indoors in the spring, 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost or in the fall, 10 to 12 weeks before your first frost. Plant the seeds ¼ inch deep. Germination can occur in temperatures that range from 45⁰F to 85⁰F. The ideal temperature is 65⁰F to 70⁰F. If you keep your seeds in the ideal range, germination should occur in 3 to 4 days.

Transplant your seedlings outdoors when they are 6 weeks old. Plant your seedlings like you plant your tomato seedlings: bury 1 to 2 inches of the stem to encourage root growth. Plant the seedlings 12 to 24 inches apart. The closer together they are, the smaller the heads will be so give your plants plenty of room. Fertilize your seedlings three weeks after planting when they have had a chance to settle into their new homes.

Give your plants 2 inches of water every week. A thick layer of mulch will help keep the soil moist and discourage the growth of weeds.

Green cabbage.  Note the smaller than usual head and close spacing.

Green cabbage. Note the smaller than usual head and close spacing.

How to Harvest Cabbage

Most cabbage plants mature in 70 days. Late maturing varieties can take up to 120 days before they are ready for harvest. It’s easy to tell when a cabbage is ready for harvest. Just squeeze the head! A mature head feels firm. One that is not fully mature will feel loose. Cut the mature heads from the plants using a sharp knife. Remove the rough outer leaves.

How to Store Cabbage

Cabbage can be refrigerated up to two weeks. Make sure that it is dry and loosely wrapped in plastic. If it is wet when you wrap it in plastic, the head will rot. If you are fortunate enough to have a root cellar, you can store your cabbages for up to two months.

Cabbage flowering during its second year of growth.

Cabbage flowering during its second year of growth.

How to Save Cabbage Seed to Plant Next Year

Cabbages are biennials. They set their seed in their second year of growth after they have experienced a period of cold weather. Cabbage will cross-pollinate with other varieties of cabbage and other brassicas so you will need to either grow only one type of cabbage and no other brassicas or isolate your plants from other cabbages and brassicas to keep the strain pure. A good isolation distance is from ½ to 1 mile.

To save the seed, you have to refrain from harvesting the heads the first year. Start with plants that you have planted in late summer. If you live in an area with mild winters (zone 8 and warmer), leave the plants in your garden over the winter. They will produce flowers and then seeds the following summer.

If you live in a colder climate, you can store the cabbage plants in a root cellar during the cold winter season. Carefully dig up your plants including the roots. Gently place them in buckets filled with moist sawdust. The roots should be buried in the sawdust to keep them from drying out. In the early spring at the time you are setting out your seedlings, you can replant the stored plants in your garden. As the weather warms into summer, the plants will bolt (produce flowers) which will then produce the seeds which you can collect and dry. Properly dried and stored cabbage seed stays viable for up to 5 years.

Questions & Answers

Question: I want to grow red cabbage and green cabbage. Is that ok? Also one of my vegetable seeds packets says 100% pure and Open Pollinated- Non GMO what does that mean?

Answer: How exciting that you are growing cabbage for the first time. You chose your seed well. Open-pollinated means that the plants are not hybrids. Non-GMO means that scientists did not artificially introduce genetic material from another plant or animal into the plants. Many consumers today are concerned with GMO (genetically modified organism) plants because no one knows the long term effects of eating genetically modified plants.

You can grow both red and green cabbage in the same garden if you are not planning on saving any seed to plant next year. If you allowed both the red and the green plants to flower, bees and other pollinators would cross-pollinate the plants. The resulting seeds would be hybrids and not look or taste like the parents. If you want to save seed for future planting, you should only grow red OR green cabbage to keep the strain pure.

© 2018 Caren White


Caren White (author) on September 20, 2018:

Bronwen, so sorry that you can't eat cabbage. Homemade sauerdraut is the best!

Bronwen Scott-Branagan from Victoria, Australia on September 20, 2018:

An interesting article and I loved the photos, too. My eldest daughter makes sauerkraut and her family enjoy it. Sadly, the FODMAP diet does not allow cabbage or its relatives. I used to eat it quite a bit, but life is so much better without all those pains in the tummy.

Caren White (author) on September 18, 2018:

Glad you enjoyed my hub. I have another hub on how to get rid of slugs and snails: I hope you find it helpful.

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on September 18, 2018:

Interesting thanks and those cabages pictured look great. We are plagued with snails and slugs in our small garden