Brassica oleracea (cabbage) and Brassica rapa (Chinese cabbage)
- Plant family: Brassicaceae or Cruciferae (Mustard, Crucifers, Cabbage)
- Season: Cool
- Life Cycle: Biennial, but grown as an Annual
- Seed to first harvest: 70-100 days
Cabbage and Chinese cabbage are members of the Brassicaceae family, also known as the cabbage, mustard, or crucifer family, which includes other cole crops like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, kohlrabi, and radish (see Figure 1). Both cabbage and Chinese cabbage are cool-season, frost-tolerant crops that are widely adapted to temperate and subtropical regions.
The center of origin of cabbage is most often considered to be the coastal areas of the Mediterranean, the British Isles, and western Europe. Cabbage is thought to have been first grown by the Greeks for medicinal purposes over 3,000 years ago. Today’s cabbage varieties are likely derived from wild, non-heading cabbages with an origin in the eastern Mediterranean, although a perennial weed native to England and France may be a wild ancestor of cabbage. This crop was likely transported by Romans and Celts from the Mediterranean region, as cabbage has been a common food crop in Europe since 900 A.D. Cabbage was introduced to Canada in 1541 by Jacques Cartier and then to the U.S. by the mid-1600s. Early colonists continued to transport cabbages to the U.S., and Native Americans were growing this crop by the 1700s (see Figure 2).
Chinese cabbage has been grown in China since the 5th century (see Figure 2). There are many different types and varieties, with this crop spreading throughout Asia and eventually the world. Chinese cabbage has the widest production area of any Asian Brassica and is the most important of this species. Today, Chinese cabbage is a staple vegetable in Asian culture and is used to make dishes like kimchi, Korean fermented cabbage.
Along with other Brassicas, cabbage and Chinese cabbage are cool season crops that are fairly heat and cold tolerant. There is a great diversity of cabbage varieties with differences in color, head size, leaf texture, disease resistance, and cuticular wax (bloom). Cabbage varieties are also grouped by earliness (harvest time), head shape (round, flat, or pointed), and color (white, green, blue, red, and purple).
Round cabbage heads consist of tightly layered, thick leaves with a short core (see Figure 3). They are traditionally green or red, and typically weigh 3-5 pounds. Some varieties are savoy types, distinct by the crinkled, “blistered-leaf” texture; these are often more tender and flavorful. Savoy varieties like Clarissa and Famosa are recommended for Louisiana. These round cabbage types take longer to mature, so for spring planting be sure to select early maturing and heat-tolerant varieties for the best chance of success in this warm climate.
Chinese cabbage is often divided into two types: heading (closed head) and non-heading. For headed types, Napa (tight head) cabbages are block-shaped, and Michihili (semi-loose head) are tall and slender, while the non-heading Pak Choi (bok choy, petsay, pei tsai) types are vase-shaped and form a swollen stem rather than a head (see Figure 3). Chinese cabbages are typically faster to mature than round cabbage and are particularly flavorful and tender.
Most varieties of cabbage and Chinese cabbage are grouped into three maturity types: early, medium, or late. Be sure to select varieties for the growing season when the crop will be produced. For an early spring crop, select early and mid-season varieties; for a fall crop, use mid- or late-season varieties. In the South, production is most successful in the winter and early spring.
Cabbage and Chinese cabbage have either open-pollinated (including heirloom) or hybrid varieties. Some heirloom varieties of cabbage/Chinese cabbage are recommended for Louisiana: Copenhagen, Flat Dutch, Wakefield, and Michihili. These seeds have been saved for at least 50 years, can be saved each season and replanted, and are open-pollinated. Brassica crops have perfect, self-pollinating flowers (containing both male and female parts) but easily cross-pollinate with other Brassicas. If saving seed, different varieties of Brassicas should be separated by a distance of 1/8-1/2 mile to avoid cross-pollination. Generally, it is not recommended to save seed for future planting with hybrid varieties as they are usually not expressed properly in the next generation.
See the recommended cabbage and Chinese cabbage varieties for Louisiana in Table 1.
When and How to Plant
Both cabbage and Chinese cabbage are cool season crops that prefer cool temperatures for optimal growth and quality. If temperatures are too warm the plants may not develop a proper head. Chinese cabbage is more difficult to grow, needing precise growing conditions for productive and vigorous plants. It is recommended to grow cabbage and Chinese cabbage during the winter season in Louisiana. Both of these crops can be established by either transplanting or direct seeding outside.
For transplanting, it is recommended to start seeds for both crops inside approximately 6 weeks before the recommended planting dates (see the Cabbage and Chinese Cabbage Planting Guide, Table 2). Using seed germination trays (with at least 1.5-inch diameter cells), plant 2-3 seeds per cell at a shallow depth (1/4-1/2 inch), just deep enough to be covered with a thin layer of soilless potting mix. Make sure to keep the seed trays in a warm (optimum germination temperature is 80-85 degrees F), well-lit area and keep soil moist, which usually requires daily light watering. A seedling heat mat and plastic dome lid are helpful in maintaining ideal germination conditions. Thin seedlings to one plant per cell after a few true leaves develop. A few days before planting transplants outside, it is recommended to follow a hardening-off process to transition seedlings to outdoor conditions.
Cabbage and Chinese cabbage are generally transplant hardy and can be planted outside once 3-4 true leaves develop and the soil has warmed. Ideally, transplant these crops when soil temperatures reach 65-75 degrees F (minimum 50 degrees F). The use of a soil temperature map can help guide planting decisions. If direct seeding, refer to the Cabbage and Chinese Cabbage Planting Guide (Table 2) for the recommended seed spacing and plant timing for your area. Cabbage head size is controlled by plant spacing. Planting closer together will result in smaller heads, about 2-3 pounds, while spacing farther apart will result in larger heads, about 5-7 pounds.
Cabbage prefers cool days between 60-70 degrees F and cold nights between 40-50 degrees F, but is tolerant to both warm and cold temperatures. Cabbage is cold hardy to as low as 20 degrees F for short periods if properly hardened. In general, young plants are more tolerant of cold compared to plants reaching maturity. Most cabbage varieties are susceptible to bolting during extended periods of long days (15 hours of sunlight) and high temperatures. Susceptibility to bolting is variety-dependent. Chinese cabbage is less tolerant to cold temperatures and is easily damaged by freezing conditions. Temperatures above 75 degrees can cause tipburn for some varieties, so the weather and timing of planting for Chinese cabbage impacts the potential success with this crop.
Table 2. CABBAGE PLANTING GUIDE
|Transplant Outside Dates
|Days to Harvest*
|North LA: Jan 15-March 15; Aug-Nov
South LA: Jan 15-March 15; Aug 15-Nov
|12-36” 1-2 rows per bed
|North/South LA: Jan 15-March 15; Aug-Oct
|6-12” (2-4” baby
|18” (3” baby) 1-2 rows per bed
*Days from seed to harvest; days in parentheses are transplant to harvest
Note: Table adapted from LSU AgCenter and UF Extension Planting Guides, and Southeastern U.S. Vegetable Production Handbook
Where to Plant
Cabbage and Chinese cabbage should be planted in deep, well-drained, fertilized soil with a soil pH of 6.0 to 7.5. These crops are less tolerant of acidic soil, so pH should be above 6.0. It is important to select a planting area in full sun and preferably plant these crops in sandy loam soil high in organic matter (although cabbage can also tolerate partial shade and heavy soils). It is best to plant these crops in box beds or traditional raised garden rows that are about 12 inches tall to ensure good drainage. In all types of gardens, it is recommended to add a layer of compost, peat moss, rotted hay, or other organic matter and mix into the soil to optimize plant health.
Reflective plastic mulch — or a plastic fabric/film — is recommended to deter aphids that transmit viruses, to increase soil temperature, and to control weeds. Drip irrigation is also recommended when using plastic mulch to maintain ideal soil moisture and to encourage productive plants.
It is recommended to rotate Brassica crops at least every 3-4 years — avoid planting vegetables from the same plant family in the same area of the garden — to reduce disease and pests. If possible, rotate every year to keep disease and pest pressure down. Floating row covers may prevent insects such as flea beetles and root maggots from damaging young transplants and plants.
Cabbage and Chinese cabbage are relatively drought tolerant, though early varieties are susceptible to splitting (bursting open) at maturity if heavy watering or rain follows a drought. Be sure to provide adequate, uniform watering after planting and during head formation. In humid areas, supplemental watering is often minimal. In general, vegetable crops require 1 inch of rain or supplemental irrigation a week.
Cabbage has a high requirement for nitrogen. Nitrogen availability varies due to soil type, organic matter content, and fertilizer application. Small head size, delayed maturity, reduced shelf life, toughness, and unpleasant odors are indications of nitrogen deficiency. Another indication of nitrogen deficiency is yellowing of the oldest/most mature (lowest) leaves. In general, red cabbage requires higher nitrogen rates to obtain optimum head size. Like most brassicas, cabbage has a high requirement for boron and molybdenum. Boron deficiency causes yellowing or chlorosis of the youngest leaves and stems. Molybdenum deficiency symptoms in cabbage include a general yellowing (marginal and interveinal chlorosis) and downward curling of margins on older leaves. It is a good idea to occasionally take a soil test. Recommendations will be provided for increasing any nutrients that are lacking to produce a good crop. The local county extension agent can assist with results interpretation.
Organic fertilizers such as compost, fish emulsion, composted poultry litter or manure, worm castings, and blood or bone meal originate from living organisms. They are far more environmentally sustainable and safe than traditional synthetic fertilizers. They naturally release nutrients more slowly and over a longer period of time. When applying organic fertilizer, it is important to use in unison with compost, cover crops, and crop rotation, which all work together to build soil health. Learn how to convert inorganic fertilizer recommendations to organic fertilizers here.
Alternatively, a synthetic fertilizer may be used at a rate of about 1.25 pounds (2.5 cups) of 13-13-13 for every 25 feet of row or 75 square feet. Broadcast, or sprinkle evenly, over the soil and then mix in about 3-6 inches deep using a rake. Supplemental sidedressing, or reapplication of synthetic fertilizer, is recommended 3-4 weeks after planting and again in 2-3 weeks. Sidedressing is the addition of fertilizer to the soil around already established plants when the plant begins to fruit or vine, primarily to provide nitrogen. If using synthetic fertilizer, sprinkle a small amount around each plant, keeping it several inches away from the plant stem; water into the soil. Because of their slow, steady release of nitrogen, crops fertilized with organic fertilizer do not usually need to be sidedressed, but fish emulsion can provide a quick release form of nitrogen for sidedressing heavy feeders like cabbage and Chinese cabbage.
Cabbage and Chinese cabbage have a dense, shallow root system, and weed competition can be harmful to crop development and head quality, uniformity of maturity, and head size. Elimination of weeds (by hoeing or hand-pulling) early in the season is recommended. Shallow soil cultivation is useful when the crop is young to decrease weed pressure, though cultivating too deep can injure the root system. Plastic mulch will control most weeds; hand-pull any remaining weeds, especially those growing in the planting holes.
Insect Pests and Diseases
Cabbages are susceptible to some foliar and fungal diseases (e.g., root rot, Fusarium yellows or wilt, and powdery or downy mildew), bacterial diseases (black rot, head rot), and physiological disorders (tipburn). Common insect pests include aphids, caterpillars, and whiteflies. It is recommended to cover transplants with row cover to reduce pest pressure. Regular monitoring can help identify symptoms of these diseases and insect pests to allow for early diagnosis and management. Generally recommended tools for disease prevention include using mulch; avoiding overhead irrigation; adequate plant spacing; crop rotation; and weed control. See Table 3 to aid in diagnosis and management of some common cabbage and Chinese cabbage insect pests and diseases.
Table 3. Organic and Natural Management for Common Insect Pests and Diseases of Cabbage and Chinese Cabbage
|Organic and Natural Pest Management
|• Warm, humid conditions
• Circular, water-soaked spots on foliage
• Stunted seedlings
• Plant death
|Alternaria leaf spot
|• Curled and yellowed leaves
• Stunted crops
• Sticky honeydew on leaves
|• Bacteria causes black veins and stem
• Leaves with yellow margins
• Leaf drop
|• Late spring occurrence
• Light green larvae with faint yellow stripes
• Holes in leaves and partially eaten
|Caterpillars (cabbage worm, cabbage looper)
|• Stunted plant roots and top growth
• Roots unable to absorb water and nutrients
|• Yellow splotches on leaves
• White downy growth on lower surfaces
• Damp, cool conditions
• Damping off
|• Yellowing in lower leaves after transplanting
• Wilted leaves, defoliation
• Stunting and plant death
• Warm weather
|Fusarium yellows or wilt
|• Bacterial rot in almost mature heads
• Yellowing leaves
• Dark brown sunken lesions
• Leads to soft rot causing mushy heads and foul odor
• Leaf discoloration
• High moisture and high temperature
|• Soil deficient in boron
• Plant spacing too wide
• Curled leaves, deformed foliage
• Brown heads
• Hollow stem centers
|• Fungus found in waterlogged, compacted soil
• Wet soil at plant base
• Purple discoloration in older leaves
• Purple stem canker
• Late summer, early fall
• Stunted plants; off-color
• Plant wilt and death
|Phytophthora root rot
|• Small, round white spots with fungal growth on older leaves with dark, mottled underside
• Leaves covered with talc-like powder; leaf yellows and dies
• Hot, dry conditions
|• Leaf discoloration and wilt
• Tiny white flies flutter when plants are disturbed
• Sticky honeydew on leaves
• Black, sooty mold fungus
Note: Table adapted from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension; Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities Extension; and UMass Extension Vegetable Program. The Louisiana Pesticide Law regulates the use of pesticides in schools to protect children and staff from harmful exposure to chemicals and is enforced by LDAF. The recommended alternative to routine pesticide use is Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which combines pest control, disease management techniques and organic/natural alternatives, many of which are found in this table.
Harvest and Storage
Round cabbage and heading Chinese cabbage should be harvested when the heads are firm, the outer leaf begins to fold back, and they are the expected size for that particular cultivar. Non-heading Chinese cabbage (like Pak Choi) should be harvested when the stems swell into a vase shape. Cut the underside of the cabbage root at or just below the soil line with a sharp harvest knife, leaving no stem or root attached to the head. Head cabbage plants may produce a second head. After harvest, the crop needs to be cooled down to remove field heat and placed in a refrigerator or cooler where there is high humidity. Removing field heat will avoid moisture loss and wilting and preserve quality and shelf life.
At an ideal storage temperature of 32 degrees F with high humidity (95-100%), the crop will last 3-6 weeks for young cabbage and 2-3 months for Chinese cabbage. Cabbage will have a sweeter flavor after a light frost.
Cabbage can be preserved by fermenting into dishes like sauerkraut and kimchi.
Cabbage is Nutritious and Good for You
Very high in Vitamin C
Important for bones, skin, blood vessels
High in Potassium
Essential for body function, especially the heart, kidney, nerves, bones, and muscles
Rich in Vitamin A
Important for eye health, a strong immune system, and cell growth
Provides calcium, iron, and dietary fiber
Bone health; produces red blood cells; important for bowel health
Louisiana Harvest of the Month: Cabbage and Apple Slaw
Louisiana Harvest of the Month: Cajun Pepper Cabbage
Louisiana Harvest of the Month: Sauteed Cabbage
Louisiana Harvest of the Month: Cabbage Recipe Video
Common methods of preparing and cooking cabbage
Video showing how to cut cabbage
Taste-testing ideas: coleslaw, stuffed cabbage leaves, roasted cabbage, Chinese stir fry
Other websites with many recipes:
- Southeastern Vegetable Extension Workers, 2020 Southeastern U.S. Vegetable Crop Handbook
- LSU AgCenter, Louisiana Vegetable Planting Guide
- LSU AgCenter, Louisiana Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations
- LSU AgCenter, Vegetable Gardening Tips: Cole Crops
- LSU AgCenter, Vegetable Gardening Tips: Chinese Cabbage
- UF Extension Planting Guide
- Vegetable Production Handbook of Florida
- Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Vegetable Varieties for Central Texas
- Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Easy Gardening: Cole Crops
- Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Commercial Crop Guides: Cabbage
- Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, Commercial Crop Guides: Chinese Cabbage
- Alabama A&M & Auburn Universities Extension, Crop Production
- UMass Extension Vegetable Program: Disease, Insect, and Mites Fact Sheets
- USDA SNAP-Ed Connection: Cabbage
- Purdue Extension FoodLink: Cabbage
- Maynard, Donald N & Hochmuth, George J (2007). Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers (5th edition). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
- Decoteau, Dennis R (2000). Vegetable Crops. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
- Swiader, John M & Ware, George W (2002). Producing Vegetable Crops (5th edition). Interstate Publishers, Inc.
- Sukprakarn, S, Juntakool, S, Huang, R, and Kalb, T (2005). Saving your own vegetable seeds—a guide for farmers. AVRDC publication number 05-647. AVRDC—The World Vegetable Center, Shanhua, Taiwan. 25 pp.
- Seed Savers Exchange, Seed Saving: A Guide to Isolation Distances
- University of Georgia Extension, How to Convert an Inorganic Fertilizer Recommendation to an Organic One, Circular 853