Cabbages need a sunny site and firm soil. Wherever possible, prepare the soil in autumn by adding well-rotted manure or garden compost and then leave it over winter to consolidate. Before planting cabbages, make sure the soil is well firmed by shuffling along the surface on your heels, then rake it flat.
You should not grow cabbages in the same soil that you grew them (or other brassicas) the previous year.
Cabbages are best suited for growing in the open ground, but you could grow one or two in large, deep containers. They are not suitable for growing bags.
Cabbages can be either sown directly in the ground outside, or in seed trays (and left outdoors). If you only want a few cabbages, it is best to sow in seed trays, then transplant outdoors. Use modular trays, and sow one seed per module.
Traditionally, cabbages are sown into a seedbed, a site away from your main vegetable plot, then transplanted later in the season. This is because sowing cabbages at their final spacings in your main vegetable plot would take up a lot of room early in the growing season, when you could be growing fast-maturing crops, such as lettuce.
However, there is nothing stopping you sowing your cabbages into your main vegetable plot, at their final spacings, which is 30-45cm (12-18in) between plants and rows, depending on the cabbage type (check the back of the seed packet).
All the groups of cabbages are grown in exactly the same way, just the sowing times vary.
- Spring cabbage: Sow in July/August; transplant in September/October.
- Summer cabbage: Sow from late February/early March (under cloches or similar cover) until early May; transplant in May/June.
- Winter cabbages: Sow in April/May; transplant in late June/July.
No matter if you are sowing into a seedbed, or into the final growing position, thoroughly prepare the soil by raking the surface to create a fine, crumbly texture and sow thinly at 1.3cm (1/2in) deep.
Transplant the young plants to their final growing position when plants have five or six true leaves, setting the lowest leaves at ground level. Water well the day before moving, firm in well after transplanting and ‘puddle’ in the plants with plenty of water (this means filling the hole with water several times before adding soil).
Plant compact varieties 30cm (1ft) apart, larger varieties up to 45cm (18in) apart. Plant spring cabbages just 10cm (4in) apart in rows 30cm (1ft) apart - thin out to 30cm (1ft) apart in late February/March.
If you puddle in your cabbages well at planting, they will need little water. In prolonged dry spells, a thorough soak every 10 days will be enough. When the heads begin to form, generous watering will greatly improve head size. Feed summer and winter cabbages with a high-nitrogen fertiliser before they get too big.
Cabbages are harvested by cutting through the stem just above ground level with a sharp knife. Cut a 13mm (1/2in) deep cross in the stump of spring and summer cabbages and you'll be rewarded with a second crop of much smaller cabbages.
Cabbages are divided into spring, summer and winter types. Spring cabbages grow over winter and are ready in April or May. Summer cabbages are ready from June through to October, and winter cabbages can be harvested throughout the coldest months.
‘Duncan’ AGM: A spring cabbage which produces a plentiful crop of small, pointed mid-green heads.
‘Kilaxy’: This summer cabbage has good club-root resistance and has tasty firm, compact heads ready from late summer to autumn.
‘Protovoy’ AGM: This is a winter Savoy cabbage with dark green outer leaves and solid hearts.
‘January King 3’: A winter cabbage with attractive red-tinged leaves. It stands well over winter.
Cabbage root fly: Female flies lay eggs around the stems and the resulting larvae eat the roots; look out for wilting plants that produce reddish leaves.
Remedy: Grow plants through brassica collars – you can buy these, or make your own from discs of felt (7.5cm/3in) with a radial slit and position the discs on the soil at the base of the plant around the stem. You could also cover cabbages with fine netting, such as Enviromesh, which also prevents cabbage white butterfly and keeps pigeons at bay. Don’t grow cabbages in the same place as you grew them (or other brassicas) last year.
Read more information about cabbage root fly
Cabbage caterpillars: A number of caterpillars will feed on cabbages, but the most common are those of cabbage white butterflies. You will usually see the caterpillars, if not, you will see the holes they make in the leaves. They will also bore into the heart of cabbages.
Remedy: In mild attacks, or if you have only a few plants, you may be able to pick the caterpillars off. You can spray with pyrethrum or bifenthrin. But the best way is to prevent the butterflies laying eggs in the first place by covering the cabbages with fine netting, such as Enviromesh.
Read more information about cabbage caterpillars
Club root: This is a fungal disease causing stunted growth, purplish foliage and wilting in hot weather. The root system also becomes swollen and distorted. It is worse on acidic soils and in warm, wet weather.
Remedy: If you have acidic soil you should apply lime before you plant. Test soil acidity using a pH meter which you can buy from DIY stores, or garden centres. If the pH of your soil is less than pH6, it is acidic. Once you see the symptoms of club root, there is very little you can do.
Read more information on club root