Easy to grow, nutritious and tasty, cabbages are veg plot favourites. There are many different types, in various shapes, sizes and colours, for harvesting at all times of the year. You can use them raw in salads or coleslaw, and as ingredients in many delicious dishes, from hearty soups to traditional bubble and squeak.
Jobs to do now
- Sow spring and winter cabbages
- Harvest summer cabbages
- Water in dry spells
Month by month
Cabbages can be sown either directly in the ground outside or in modular trays (and left outdoors). If you only want a few cabbages or have limited space, it’s easiest to sow in trays (one seed per module), then transplant outdoors later. Although cabbages do best in open ground, you could grow one or two in a large, deep container, but they aren’t suitable for growing bags.
Take care not to grow cabbages in the spot where you grew them (or other brassicas) the previous year.
Traditionally, cabbages are sown into a ‘seed bed’ – a site away from the main vegetable plot – then transplanted later in the season. This is because sowing them at their final spacing in your main plot would take up a lot of room early in the season, when you could be using it for fast-maturing crops such as lettuces.
Still, if you have plenty of space, it’s fine to sow straight into your main plot at their final spacing – 30–45cm (12–18in) apart, depending on the variety (check individual seed packets).
All the groups of cabbages are grown in exactly the same way, just the sowing times vary:
Summer cabbages: 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
Spring cabbages: sow in July/August; transplant in September/October
Cabbages need a sunny site and firm soil. If possible, prepare the ground in autumn by adding plenty of well-rotted manure or garden compost, then leave it over winter to consolidate.
Before sowing, make sure the soil is well firmed by shuffling along the surface on your heels. Then rake it level, creating a fine, crumbly texture.
Make a drill, 1cm (½in) deep, then sow the seeds thinly along it.
When your young cabbage plants have five or six true leaves, it’s time to transplant them to their final growing position.
The method is simple:
Water them well the day before
Set the plants in their new hole so the lowest leaves are at ground level
‘Puddle’ in the plants with plenty of water – this means filling the hole with water several times before adding soil
The spacing varies depending on the type of cabbage:
Compact varieties – 30cm (1ft) apart
Larger varieties – up to 45cm (18in) apart
Spring cabbages – just 10cm (4in) apart, in rows 30cm (1ft) apart, then thin out to 30cm (1ft) apart in late February/March
Water plants in prolonged dry spells – a thorough soak every 10 days should be enough. When the heads begin to form, generous watering will greatly improve size.
Feed summer and winter cabbages with a high-nitrogen fertiliser before they get too big.
Sowings of spring, summer and winter varieties can provide cabbages throughout the year. They generally take about four to six months to reach maturity, depending on the type.
Harvest them once they have reached the size you want, and formed a firm head. Cut through the stem just above ground level with a sharp knife.
If you cut a 1cm (½in) deep cross in the stump of spring and summer cabbages after harvesting, they should go on to produce a second (much smaller) cabbage.
varieties for autumn & winter cropping
Cabbages — summer
Cabbages — autumn & winter
Cabbage root fly
White larvae approximately 5cm (2in) long, feed on the roots just below the soil surface, stunting growth and causing plants to wilt and die.
Grow under insect-proof mesh or horticultural fleece. Seedlings are most vulnerable.
A number of caterpillars will feed on brassicas, 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.
In mild attacks, or if you have only a few plants, you may be able to pick the caterpillars off. Insect-proof mesh or fine netting (5-7mm mesh) can prevent egg-laying.
Roots become swollen and distorted, and leaves become pale and yellow and wilt easily. Plants may die.
Improve drainage and add lime to make soil more alkaline. Do not grow in affected soil.
Slugs and snails
These feed on the young seedlings and you'll see the tell tale slime trail on the soil around your crop, as well as on the leaves.
There are many ways to control slugs and snails, including beer traps, sawdust or eggshell barriers, copper tape and biocontrols.
Nigel Slater combines cabbage with garlic, ginger and spring onions in this Thai-style brassica stir-fry.
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.