Horticulture Magazine

How To Grow Spring Cabbage

close up of a green cabbage

Spring Cabbage Overview

Official Plant NameSpring Cabbage
Common Name(s)Brassica
Plant TypeVegetable
Native AreaCultivated
Hardiness RatingH4
ToxicityEdible
When To SowMarch, September, October
Harvesting MonthsMay, June
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun or Partial Shade

Exposure
Sheltered

Size

Height
0.1 – 0.5M

Spread
0.1 – 0.5M

Soil

Preferred
Most Soil Types

Moisture
Moisture Retentive

pH
Any

Mildly flavourful and with a smooth, soft texture, Spring Cabbage or Spring Greens are packed with vitamins to boot. You can pick this veggie with the cooing of the cuckoo and savour its sweetish greens in spring stews and lightly-cooked stir fries, or enjoy them raw in egg or tuna sandwiches.

Early Spring Cabbage is more like a leafy green than like cabbage; the smooth, loose leaves are tender and sweetish. In fact, when picked in early spring the more apt name is Spring Greens because the vegetable is loose-leafed as it has not firmed up and developed a head (of whatever shape), which one expects in a cabbage. Even when picked late in the harvesting season this type of ‘cabbage’ does not have the solid heart that ‘cabbage proper’ does.

Call it Spring Cabbage or Spring Greens, this crop will probably be the first fresh vegetable you will get, and that too at ‘break of spring.’ Perhaps more of a rolled-up leafy green than a cabbage as such, it has a leafier, smoother mouth-feel and texture and does not have the crunchy succulence of cabbage, yet it usually has a stronger, sweeter flavour than most ‘cabbages proper.’ Spring Cabbage leaves are a darker shade of greyish-green than those of the vast majority of ‘regular’ cabbage varieties. 

cabbage leaves on a white background
Dark Green, Leafy, Nutritious, and Tasty – Spring Greens

Spring Cabbage varieties are mostly conical or egg-shaped but rounded forms are also available. Like all cabbages they are a member of Genus Brassica which belongs to the Mustard Family, also called Cabbage Family. They include cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli. The Botanical name for Cabbage is Brassica oleracea. Cultivars of Cabbage, including Spring Cabbage, are Brassica oleracea var. acephala. ‘Acephala,’ meaning ’sans head,’ is quite an accurate modifier for this light, loose-form type of cabbage.

Spring Cabbage varieties, as plants that mature over the winter, are very hardy plants. They have been and are much-valued in Northern Europe and Northern Russia where they are a key ingredient for a variety of springtime recipes.

Background and Origins

Lonely and rugged in the mist on chalky, limestone coastal cliffs – think Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. It is in such inhospitable and wild regions that Spring Cabbage’s ancestral parent grew and still grows, appropriately named ‘Wild Cabbage’ – the original Brassica oleracea. It also grows in the sandy, scrubby grassland found along coasts and shorelines.

Wild Cabbage does not compete well with other plants in more hospitable or fertile lands but tolerates salt, lime, sea-spray and damp very well, hence its unusual habitat.

Wild Cabbage is indigenous to to Western and Southern Europe, including the British Isles.

It is the (ultimate ancestral) parent of the Spring Cabbages listed underneath, and also of other cabbages and cauliflowers.

wild cabbage of dorset cliff side
Wild Cabbage in its Native Element – Chalky Cliffs, Salt, and Sea-Spray!

Essential Varieties

The following hybrids and cultivars are sequenced in an order that seeks to combine two criteria. Ease of growing and caring, especially for beginners, and classic or ‘proper’ Spring Cabbage attributes.

Durham Early is a heritage variety of Mid-Nineteenth Century British origin. It is a tried and trusted variety. It has the classical conical shape and the dark green leaves are appreciated for both taste and texture. It produces sweet-tasting, tender Spring Greens as early as late February. A classic Spring Cabbage.

Winter Jewel F1 is a newer variety that is flexible and does dual duty. It is a proper spring cabbage in that you sow in autumn and harvest in spring. It produces dark, leafy Spring Greens early in the season but can be left go grow and it will ‘dense up’ into a proper head. It is very disease-resistant. 

Advantage F1 is also a newer variety and also does dual duty, affording flexibility in sowing and harvesting seasons; thus, it reliably grows as not only a Spring Cabbage but also as a Summer or Autumn Cabbage. Left to mature it will grow a heart and become denser. R.H.S.’s Award of Garden Merit.

spring cabbage sat in a wooden bowl
The Dark Green Colour and Classic Conical Shape of Spring Cabbage

Wheelers Imperial is a British heritage variety dating to the mid-1800s. It is less loose and firms up quicker, producing conical hearts that are relatively solid but tender. The head can also be fairly dense. Leaves are dark green. This is another tried and trusted variety that overwinters very well.

Spring Hero is one of the newer varieties and, unlike most Spring Cabbages, is a mini ballhead. In fact, it is very similar to regular cabbage in that it has solid heads with a crispy, cream-coloured heart, and like regular cabbages it does not need to be consumed soon after it is harvested. But like Spring Cabbages you sow seeds in August and harvest in March. R.H.S.’s Award of Garden Merit.

Hispi F1 is not exclusively a Spring Cabbage, having been developed for multi-season sowing. However, it is a remarkable hybrid that competes with and even outdoes the best of Spring Cabbages in the short time within which it is ready for harvest, and reliably so. It is of conical form, is robust, and is valued for its sweet taste. It is bolt-resistant.

hispi cabbage at a market
The Conical Shape of Popular Hispi Cabbage

Pixie is of comparatively recent vintage but is not a new variety. It has a medium green colour and is smaller than average. It is more like a baby cabbage than Spring Cabbage. If not harvested early the leaves will become dense and it will grow a compact head. It is a little crisper than other Spring Cabbages. R.H.S.’s Award of Garden Merit.

spring cabbage on white background
A Fine Image of a Heritage Variety of Spring Cabbage

Other Varieties

An innumerable varieties of Cabbage exist. In fact, Spring Cabbage is only one type or grouping of cabbage. This vegetable can be divided into five further main groupings: Summer Cabbage, Winter Cabbage, Savoy Cabbage, Red Cabbage, and Heirloom or Heritage Cabbage. Though each grouping has its own specific varieties, one variety may fall in more than one grouping.

For example, Summer Cabbages, which are mostly ball-heads, include Stonehead, Golden Acre, Greyhound, Napa, and Hispi. And these are only the varieties that are well known and popular in Europe and America! Eastern Europe and Russia, for example, have other Summer Cabbage varieties.

Many other, very different, varieties make up the other Cabbage groupings.

Habitat and Growing Conditions

The habitat and growing conditions of Wild Cabbage, the (ancestral) parent of Spring Cabbage, are rocky cliffs and other coastal settings with limestone and chalky soil, as mentioned in Section Background and Origins. This is very far from the habitat and growing conditions you will need for Spring Cabbage!

Spring Cabbage feeds heavily on nutrients in the soil so it needs very rich and fertile soil. The best soil would comprise of ’standard’ loam with organic manure and garden compost added. Soil pH should be right around Neutral – 6.0 to 7.5.

Prepare the bed one to two months before you will sow seeds (or transplant seedlings) of Spring Cabbage.

The bed should be sited in a sunny spot. It should be well-drained but the soil itself should retain moisture. Soil should be firmed up; it should not be light or loose.

Do not plant any Brassica, that is Mustard-Family crops, in soil or land in which Brassica crops were grown the year before to avoid soil depletion. Such soil must be left fallow or recycled via crop rotation. Beans, peas, and other legumes are a top choice to alternate with Brassicas.

How to Grow Spring Cabbage

In July or August, sow Spring Cabbage seeds in the bed you have prepared or you may sow them in a seed module tray indoors. 

Late summer is a hospitable time to sow seeds outdoors; the reason that Spring Cabbage is typically started in a tray is to allow you to use your vegetable garden for other crops that you would harvest by September.

Instead of the additional trouble and the usual (small) risk of transplanting seedlings to save only two months, and also to keep the soil fertile and nutrient-rich for this heavy-feeding vegetable, if you live in a region that is not overly blustery and not infested with cabbage pests, sow the seeds directly in the soil.

Sow Spring Cabbage seeds 20 to 30 centimetres apart, across and deep. This will allow you to thin the plants and choose the best ones, and also cover for seeds that fail to germinate and seedlings that do not thrive.

The seed should be sown about a centimetre beneath the soil. Water well after sowing.

If you are getting some rain, drizzle the growing plants now and then. If the weather is dry soak the bed once a week or water well twice a week.

rows of organic cabbages growing in a vegetable plot
Cabbage is not too Difficult to Grow in Your Backyard

You could cover seedlings overnight with horticultural fleece in the winter. You should also do so during frigid winter nights if you think your variety of Spring Cabbage is insufficiently hardy.

 As and when necessary you could also cover them up with the fleece for a short period during the day to prevent small birds from descending on your growing Spring Cabbage. Better yet, protect your seedlings and young Spring Cabbages with Agfabric or other garden netting.

Add some slow-release 10-5-5 fertilizer in January.

Thin the young plants on an ongoing basis. You can do so from one month after germination through to end-Winter. Ideally you will eventually be left with growing plants that are 40 to 60 centimetres apart but in fact you will end up with a few plants only 25 centimetres apart while a few others will be 75 centimetres apart. Give preference to the clearly healthier plant regardless of spacing but if it is nip and tuck between adjacent plants, select for spacing.

If you live in a blustery area compress the ground and protect the seedlings with a barrier made from horticultural windbreak netting. As the plants grow, you could also pack up some soil around the base of the stem.  

Experienced gardeners may wish to sow and germinate the seeds indoors in a seed module tray. If you do so, ensure that seedlings get enough sun, start hardening them after a month, and transplant selected seedlings in mid-late-October in an outdoor bed, first soaking it in water.

Harvesting Spring Cabbage 

As the plants grow through winter and you approach spring, a couple of things need to be kept in mind.

If you see any yellowed or discoloured leaves, as a preventive measure remove them from the plant. Otherwise, if the leaves harbour some disease it may spread.

Weed the bed as you would for any other plant. Hoeing the soil from time to time is good practice when growing Brassicas.

Spring Cabbage will be harvested from early March (occasionally late February if the variety allows) through May, with peak harvesting in April. The length of the harvesting season will depend on the particular variety you have grown. 

Be aware that if your variety has an elongated and pointed shape, you may not know that a cabbage is mature the way you would with more oval or ballhead forms. Also be watchful of your plants coming to flower – do not let them bolt.

cabbage rolls filled with meat on a ceramic plate
Tasty!

Pick your crop gradually on an ongoing basis or do so in two harvests. You can pick the half the crop in March and enjoy these tender, leaf-like Spring Greens in early spring. Try to pick alternating plants. Allow the other half another month or two; they will become firmer and may form heads as they grow bigger.

Harvest your March run of Spring Cabbage by cutting the stem nearly at soil level with a sharp implement and then make two deep crosswise vertical incisions in the stump. Add some manure pellets or 10-5-5 fertilizer and continue to water. The stem will produce another crop of smaller ‘Baby Spring Cabbages’ in summer. 

Common Diseases and Problems

Spring Cabbage is susceptible to Cabbage root fly and Cabbage white caterpillars. 

You can guard against root flies by growing your crops under fine garden netting.

If you see caterpillars, pick them off to begin with. Instead of using Bacillus thuringiensis products on your food crop, try a homemade organic formula. Make a solution of vinegar and garlic by mixing one teaspoon of vinegar and two of garlic powder into a litre of water and spray on and around the cabbages. Prepare a more concentrated solution if necessary.

Pieris rapae on damaged cabbage leaves
Don’t let this Happen to Your Spring Greens! Simple Vinegar and Garlic can do the Trick.

Where to Get Spring Cabbage  

Spring Cabbage is best grown from seed. These are certainly not as widely available as seeds for core vegetables. However, a number of specialist seed stores and merchants sell more than one variety of Spring Cabbage seeds. Most of the ones listed in section Essential Varieties should not be hard to find online.

Health Benefits 

Spring Cabbage is like a tasty multivitamin tablet. It contains Vitamins B6 and E, Folate (B9), and the minerals iron and manganese, and is particularly rich in Vitamins C and K, and potassium.

It is a very good source of dietary fibre.

Finally, it contains sulforaphane and indoles which are both anti-inflammatory as well as anti-cancer.

various vitamins on a grey countertop
Why Take Multivitamin Pills When you can Enjoy Tasty Spring Greens?

Culinary Uses  

Spring Cabbage offers different culinary possibilities than regular cabbage. Northern Europeans and Northern Russians prepare quite a few foods and dishes with Spring Cabbage.

One key point to keep in mind is about the stems – they are delicious! Don’t waste them; you can use the stems to make soups as well as salads. They can also be kept aside for pickling with other similar veggies.

Spring Greens should be only lightly cooked; they will not stay fresh or be appetizing if overcooked. Steaming, sauteeing, and stir-frying are the best ways to prepare Spring Cabbage. 

It is an excellent addition to soups and stews, and the greens can also be put raw in sandwiches as one would use lettuce.

stuffed green spring rolls with sauce on a plate
Stuffed Spring Green Rolls – Yum!

In Northern and Eastern Europe Stuffed Cabbage Rolls are often made with ground or minced meats rolled up inside Spring Green leaves.

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