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Barbara Pleasant: Growing Cabbage


Updated and revised in 2023, Starter Vegetable Gardens will help you grow a successful food garden on your very first try.

cabbage seedlings
'Alcosa' savoy cabbage
'Alcosa' savoy cabbage

Everything grows better with compost! Check out my Complete Compost Gardening Guide for dozens of neat composting ideas.

In spring, plastic cloches protect cabbage seedlings from damaging winds, hungry rabbits, and lazy chickens. You can use milk carton cloches the same way. A collar made from a drinking cup protects the seedlings from cutworms.
The safest place for mature cabbage is your refrigerator, but if you run out of room, you can dig up the plants and sink them in buckets of damp soil. When protected from freezing temperatures, they will store for weeks this way!

Trim off the big outer leaves from harvested heads, but wait until you're ready to cook to wash cabbage. Water that gets inside the heads can cause yucky molds.
Earwigs often seek shelter in the base of cabbage plants, so they are common cabbage pests in home gardens. Earwigs are easy to trap using damp rolls of newspaper placed between plants. In the cool of the morning, tap them out into a pail of soapy water. You can also trap earwigs with shallow dishes of vegetable oil. 
My book, Homegrown Pantry, combines gardening and kitchen know-how to help you eat from your garden year round. Fermentation of cabbage and other vegetables gets plenty of coverage, because you are going to want to do it!   
Isn't it amazing how much a cabbage looks like a tree?
We grow cabbage twice a year, in spring and in fall. Cabbage doesn’t survive winter here in Zone 6b and summers can get hot, so fast-growing cabbage varieties work best in both seasons. Splitting the seasons also helps us avoid the worst insect pests.

I like elongated 'Early Jersey Wakefield' and round little 'Katarina' for both seasons, as well as 'Alcosa' savoy cabbage. 'Ruby Perfection' is the red variety I recommend in my book, Starter Vegetable Gardens.

Growing cabbage from seed is easy, and gives you something to do in February, when you can't wait to start gardening. I set out hardened-off seedlings in April, when the rhododendrons bloom. I don't have a greenhouse, so I harden off the seedlings in an open, opaque plastic storage bin set out on my sunny deck. The sides of the bin protect the seedlings from wind, and it takes only a minute to pop on the lid, or bring the seedlings indoors. 

Planting Cabbage
Even fertile soil should be amended with nitrogen when growing cabbage. Before setting out seedlings, I enrich planting holes with a balanced organic fertilizer mixed with a generous amount of homemade compost. In my soil, cabbage benefits greatly from a bit of boron, which I apply to the soil at transplanting, using two tablespoons of household borax diluted in a gallon of water for about eight plants. The plants get a drench with a liquid organic fertilizer when they start heading.

Allow big cabbage plants plenty of space, at least 16 inches between plants, because crowded plants will produce small, late heads. The best way to keep the area between the plants weed free is to cover it with a good mulch. Here I am using grass clippings over newspapers as a cabbage mulch, and straw or chopped leaves work well, too. Do be careful in years with wet springs, which favor leaf-eating slugs -- a formidable cabbage pest. In sluggy seasons, I may not mulch my cabbage at all, because no mulch means less shelter for slugs. As cabbage plants approach full size, their huge basal leaves shade the soil, creating a green mulch.
Common Cabbage Pests
I use row covers made with tulle (wedding net), shown above, to exclude cabbageworms and other pests when growing cabbage and closely related crops. Without row covers, you may need to spray plants with Spinosad, a biological pesticide, every 10 days. Spinosad is more persistent than Bacillus thuringiensis, which must be reapplied every time it rains.    
imported cabbageworm, common cabbage pest
The most common cabbage pests are imported cabbageworms (above), which are the larvae of the cabbage white butterfly (above right). When you see these white butterflies active in your garden, you can be sure they are laying eggs on the leaf undersides of broccoli, cabbage, and kale.



One of the neat things about spring cabbage is this: cut the first heads high on the stem, and a cluster of nice-sized secondary heads will grow from the stump, somewhat like giant, loosely curled brussels sprouts. You can grow cut-and-come- again cabbage in the fall, too!. This unique aspect of growing cabbage should be more widely practiced in home gardens. When things go well, you can double productivity growing cut-and-come-again cabbage.

Eating Garden Cabbage
Of the many ways to eat and preserve garden cabbage explored in my book, Homegrown Pantry, fermentation is the the most fun! Cabbage is easy to ferment into kraut, especially in early summer and fall, when it's nice and cool indoors. To control temperatures and odors, I often ferment inside a cooler, and use frozen drink bottles to keep temperatures around 60F. Like making compost, making sauerkraut gives diminishing returns: a big garden cabbage will ferment into about 1.5 pints of sauerkraut. 

You can use the large outer leaves of tender cabbage to make cabbage rolls. First blanch them in steam or boiling water for a minute or two to soften them, and then split the stems with a sharp knife to help flatten them.

I love any kind of slaw or pickled cabbage, but my favorite is slow-roasted cabbage that bakes until it begins to brown. Try it, you'll like it!
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