Corrupted by Cabbage

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Depending on who you ask, pride is either a sin (St. Augustine) or a virtue (Aristotle). As a gardener, it does not feel wrong to gloat with pride over a perfect head of cabbage, but it can get you into trouble. For example, you can become so spellbound by a savoy’s crinkled leaves or the artful veins in a red head that you spend excessive time admiring them when you should be eating them. Is this what St. Augustine meant by "a love of one’s own excellence?"

I admit to excessive pride where my cabbage is concerned. Cabbage itself is not difficult to grow, but in the varied climates of the US, finding the best planting dates can be tricky. The Garden Planner can take much of the guesswork out of when to start your seeds, which may be winter, summer or early fall.

In climates where summers rarely stay hot for long, cabbage is a straightforward crop that is planted in spring and harvested in fall, the same way it is grown in much of Europe. In hot summer areas, fall cabbage often does better than spring plantings, because the fall season offers the longest stretch of cool weather.

Savoy cabbage

In my Zone 6 garden in Southwest Virginia, I get the best results by growing two crops of cabbage. The first is seeded indoors in March and set out under cloches or in a cold frame 6 weeks before my last frost. The second is seeded indoors in July and set out under row cover tunnels that protect the seedlings from insects and hail. By using fast-maturing varieties, the fall cabbage is ready just as the first frosts arrive in October.

Spring Cabbage

Depending on where you live, you may be able to grow cabbage through the winter, just like they do in the UK. In Atlanta, for example, average January highs and lows (52°F/11°C – 33F/.5°C°) are quite close to those in Liverpool (44°F/6.5°C – 36°F/2°C). In much of Zone 7 and points south, you can easily bring cabbage through winter by using a light row cover during severe cold spells. Spring cabbage that grows through the winter is exceptionally sweet, and well worth the long wait for harvesting.

Cabbages in a row cover tunnel
A row cover tunnel protecting cabbage from insects and the worst of the weather

Garden-Worthy Varieties

Cabbage varieties that produce very large heads needs two feet (60cm) or more between plants, and not many recipes call for a 5 pound head of cabbage, so I veer toward small-headed varieties like ‘Gonzales’ or ‘Alcosa’ savoy and ‘Super Red 80’, all rated at about 72 days to maturity from transplanting. These compact varieties can be grown only 14 inches (35 cm) apart, but they have a nutritional advantage, too. The outer wrapper leaves are the most nutritious part of the cabbage plant, and by growing small-headed varieties, you get more of these vitamin-packed leaves.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"I'm positively green with envy - another sin! The only issue I'd take with the above is that cabbage is easy to grow. I gave up some time ago. Not because cabbages themselves don't sprout easily, but because everything, but everything, has them in their sights: pigeons, caterpillars, slugs, bugs. The slightest let up in your defences, the smallest chink in the mesh protection, and the pests are in, stripping leaves before you have time to leg it down the garden to stop them. For anyone with the same problem, I'd say kale is a little less problematic (though still a pigeon-magnet). "
Helen Gazeley on Sunday 11 October 2009
"Helen - I, too, have had problems with everything wanting a bite of my cabbages, from caterpillars to pigeons when I was growing them on an allotment. A really good tunnel of enviromesh was the thing that solved it for me, although I still needed to pick them before mid autumn, otherwise rabbits burrowed under the tunnel and ate my prize crops. I think you get less problems growing them in a suburban garden where you don't get the rabbits and pigeons can be scared away."
Jeremy Dore on Wednesday 14 October 2009
"Great write-up, Barbara. Where I live there is a light frost once every 15 years or so, and no real winter. As a result, insects are our major problem with all cabbage family crops. Aphids are the worst problem, but jetting them off with a stream of water can pretty well control them. Harlequin bugs are another pest, but controlling the mustard they over-winter in helps a lot. Cabbage moths/worms are a pest, but Bt pretty much settles their hash... We don't have pigeons here, and my most common birds in the garden are California Quail. I've counted over a hundred in the garden areas at once. Although the adult quail's diet is 85% plant material, the juvenile's diet is 85% insects, and we love them!"
MIke Taylor on Friday 16 October 2009
"Cabbage moths/worms are a pest, but Bt pretty much settles their hash.. Could you explain what this means, I have so many cabbage moths, but don't know what Bt is or hash?"
Guma Tretheway on Thursday 27 September 2012
"Bt is short for Bacillus thuringiensis - a naturally occurring bacteria that attacks the caterpillars' gut and prevents them from digesting. They starve to death. "Settling their hash" is a colloquial expression meaning it kicks their butts, but in a nicer way ;)"
Mike Taylor on Thursday 27 September 2012
"Ah I figured it was a colloquial expression, Ill have to try it on here in California and see how it flys. Off to build a tent with bird netting over the broccoli, hope it works."
Guma Tretheway on Thursday 27 September 2012

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