Growing red cabbage: expert tips on red cabbage cultivation


For many years now, I have been growing various vegetables as a hobby in my spare time, which is what ultimately led me to studying horticulture. I find it fascinating to watch as plants grow from seed to fruit and to then finally be able to make use of the literal fruits of my labour.

Favourite fruit: Strawberries and cherries
Favourite vegetable: Potatoes, tomatoes and garlic

Red cabbage can be used to make delicious crisp winter salads or hearty side dishes. We will explain various methods for growing red cabbage at home as well as how to care for the young plants.

Head of red cabbage
Pre-grown red cabbage seedlings can be planted in the bed from the beginning of April [Photo: Dolores M. Harvey/]

Red cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata f. rubra), often called purple cabbage, was first mentioned by historical sources in the 12th century. Red cabbage is not only a tasty winter vegetable, but also a bioindicator as depending on the soil pH, it changes colour. When grown in acidic soils, it appears red, whereas in alkaline soils it takes on a blue hue—an interesting characteristic that provides revealing information about your garden soil’s pH. Everything you need to know about red cabbage care, harvesting and use can be found in our overview article. Read on to find out how to successfully plant and grow red cabbage in your garden.

Planting red cabbage: here’s how it works

Determining when to sow red cabbage depends very much on the variety: a basic distinction can be made between summer (sown in early spring), autumn (sown in late spring) winter (sown in spring) and spring cabbages (sown in late summer).

The first step for growing red cabbage from seed starts with sowing the seeds in a cold frame or seed trays—spread the seeds evenly over the growing medium and cover with 1cm of soil; prick out the seedlings and transplant into separate pots after germination. Alternatively, when sowing directly into the bed, dig 1 cm deep rows leaving 15 cm space between the rows. Sow red cabbage seeds evenly in the rows and cover with soil. They will then be transplanted later in the season to their final spacing of 30 – 45 cm apart. A low-nutrient growing compost is most suited as a planting substrate for red cabbage seedlings since it stimulates robust root growth, which is beneficial when transplanting later. For example, our Plantura Organic Herb and Seedling Compost is ideal for growing young plants due to its low nutrient content and loose structure. Plus, it is sustainably produced and peat-free!

Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, 20L
Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, 20L
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  • Perfect for herbs as well as sowing, propagating & transplanting
  • For aromatic herbs & healthy seedlings with strong roots
  • Peat-free & organic soil: CO2-saving composition

Sowing late spring red cabbage: Early varieties of red cabbage can be sown from February to the beginning of March in heated greenhouses, heated cold frames or in a comparable, cool spot that is frost-free and about 15 °C. After the first true leaves have developed, prick out the red cabbage seedlings and plant in nutrient-rich soil. Continue to grow the plants in a cold frame, greenhouse or in a bed covered by a foil tunnel as cabbage plants require a minimum of 15 °C to grow. Between May and June, the plants develop into heads that are ready for harvesting.

Sowing summer red cabbage: If you want to harvest summer cabbage varieties, sow the appropriate seeds in March or early April. Suitable places for sowing are unheated cold frames or beds with foil tunnels. From May onwards, the young plants can either be transplanted from the cold frame into the bed or the foil tunnel can be removed. Summer cabbage is ready for harvesting between July and September.

Sowing autumn and winter red cabbage: Sow these late and very late, slow-growing red cabbage varieties between March and the beginning of April in a cold frame or a foil tunnel . Subsequent sowings in April and May are also possible with these varieties—this way, late red cabbage can be harvested from October to December.

Sowing spring red cabbage: Sow bolt-resistant varieties in July – August and transplant to their final home in September – October. Once daytime temperatures of around 10 °C arrive in spring they will continue to grow and can be harvested from March to May. This is only possible in mild regions without heavy frosts. Temperatures should not fall below 0 °C for long periods in winter, and there should only be short periods of frost. 

red cabbage seedlings in a container
As soon as the red cabbage seedlings have more than four leaves, they can be pricked out [Photo: Kateryna_MA/]

Planting red cabbage

When to plant red cabbage?

If you have sown your red cabbage as described above, then you will have vigorous young plants. Many garden centres also offer pre-grown young plants. Generally, only summer, autumn and winter cabbages are available. All can be planted out in the bed from May to the end of June. If you have a greenhouse or use a foil tunnel or fleece, you can even plant them out as early as April.

Plant the young plants as deeply as possible, but leave the crown, i.e., where the stem meets the roots, above the earth. To do this, use a hand trowel to dig a hole, place the young plant in it, cover it with soil and press it down lightly.

Tip: When planting red cabbage before mid-May, it is important to protect the small plants from the cold, as an overly intense cold shock can cause premature flowering and prevent the formation of heads.

Red cabbage: spacing, location, and soil

Red cabbage feels most at home in a sunny to semi-shady location. It grows particularly well in good garden soils, especially in humus-rich, deep loamy soils with a slightly acidic to slightly alkaline pH value. As cabbages are heavy feeders, it is important the soil is high in nutrients. Soils that are less humic and more calcareous are usually tolerated but produce lower yields. The right spacing is important both when planting young red cabbage plants and when sowing red cabbage seeds directly: space the plants 50 cm apart and leave 50 cm between rows to give the plants enough space to grow. Autumn/winter varieties usually need a little more space, so space the plants 70 cm apart. This extra space allows the cabbage to flourish and protects it from pests like the cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae).

Young red cabbage plants in garden bed
From mid-April, red cabbage can also be sown directly in the bed [Photo: Ruud Morijn Photographer/]

Companion planting with red cabbages

Growing red cabbage in a polyculture is also possible; Carrots (Daucus carota subsp. Sativus), lettuce, onions (Allium cepa), garden beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) make great companion plants. Fragrant herbs like thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and sage (Salvia) are also good neighbours and keep pests away at the same time. A general rule for cabbage varieties is that they do not do well when grown next to one another. Other cruciferous plants (Brassicaceae) that are not good polyculture partners are rapeseed (Brassica napus) and mustard (Sinapis).

If you want to do a crop rotation, plant red cabbage as the first crop. Some examples of good preceding crops are potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and legumes such as peas (Pisum sativum) and garden beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). Legumes can fix nitrogen in the soil, making them an excellent green manure. Allow a planting gap of at least four years before planting other cabbage varieties or cruciferous vegetables (Brassicaceae) to avoid the spread of diseases such as club root (Plasmodiophora brassicae)—a harmful fungal disease.

Tip for growing red cabbage on the balcony: Growing red cabbage in pots is also possible. To do this, use a large pot with a diameter of at least 20 cm and a depth of 20 cm and place it in a sunny to semi-shady location. Only plant one head of cabbage per pot to avoid competition for water and nutrients owing to limited space among multiple plants. Regular watering is especially important for potted crops.

Red cabbage growing amongst other plants
Red cabbage grows well in polycultures with a range of different plants [Photo: photolike/]

Planting red cabbage: a brief summary

  • Fertilise the area before planting. Either work in some mature manure or our Plantura Tomato Food into the soil to provide your red cabbages with nutrients right from the start.
  • Knowing when to plant young red cabbage plants or when to sow red cabbage seeds is dependent upon whether you want to grow spring, summer or autumn cabbage. Generally, red cabbage seedlings can be grown from February onwards or sown directly into the bed from mid-April.
  •  A high-quality growing soil with a low but balanced nutrient content, such as our Plantura Organic Herb and Seedling Compost, is recommended for sowing, as this promotes root growth.
  • The ideal plant spacing for summer varieties is 40 to 50 cm, and about 70 cm for autumn/winter varieties, since they will remain in the bed longer.
  • Protect plants sown in spring from frosts using fleece or a foil tunnel or grow them in a greenhouse or cold frame.
Red cabbage head with frost
Red cabbage usually tolerates short frosts without any problems, making it the perfect winter vegetable [Photo: Trong Nguyen/]

Proper care during red cabbage cultivation

As soon as you have finished planting your young red cabbages in the bed, the care begins: rake regularly around the small plants to prevent weeds from competing for light, water and nutrients. Additionally, tilling loosens the soil and improves aeration. Because of the still-weakly established root system, water regularly and thoroughly, especially on dry days, to keep the red cabbages from drying out. Find out how to water and fertilise red cabbage properly as well as what pests to look out for as the plant matures in our overview article on red cabbage.