Chinese cabbage is one of the most popular Asian vegetables you can find, but it tastes even better fresh. The good news is that it’s a really easy plant to grow at home.
In this Chinese cabbage grow guide, our experts will show you everything you need to know.
What is Chinese cabbage?
Chinese cabbage is a common name used when referring to Asian cabbage varieties, especially those native to and grown in China.
Usually, the name is used for the Napa cabbage, but there are two main groups of this vegetable, depending on whether they form cabbage heads or not. They are both descendants of Brassica rapa, the same plant that is also the source of turnips, field mustard, and broccoli rabe.
The two main Chinese cabbage groups are:
- Brassica rapa subsp. chinensis: a non-heading cabbage, typically grown for its thick, celery-like stalks and clusters of dark green leaves; the common name for it is bok choy (or pak choy);
- Brassica rapa subsp. pekinensis: a variety that produces a cabbage head, cylindrical and often elongated in shape; the best-known example is Napa cabbage.
In this guide, we’ll be discussing how to grow heading cabbages, especially varieties such as Napa and Taiwan cabbage.
If you’re interested in growing pak choy instead, check out the separate growing and care guide over here.
Different names for Chinese cabbage
Although Napa cabbage is the name most commonly used for Chinese heading cabbage, the word’s origin is Japanese. In Japan, the word nappa (菜っ葉) refers to vegetable leaves in general, not just those of cabbage.
Due to its popularity and wide use, Chinese cabbage is found under several names in restaurants and markets worldwide. Other names also include winter cabbage, Chinese white cabbage, Pekin (or Beijing) cabbage, wombok (in the Philippines), hakusai (mostly used for a Japanese cultivar), and pe-tsai.
Chinese cabbage has been cultivated in Asia for centuries, and it’s a staple in many traditional dishes. It was one of the essential vitamins and nutrients during the winter months and is prized for its long storage. Like the western cabbage varieties, it is a cold season crop, easy to grow, and packed full of nutrients.
How to grow Chinese cabbage
Chinese cabbage is one of the most common Asian vegetables that you will find in supermarkets. However, nothing beats the flavor of cabbage freshly picked from your garden.
Let’s take a look at how you can grow your own.
1. When to plant Chinese cabbage
Chinese cabbage is grown as a cold season crop, typically planted in early spring. Depending on where you live, you can also grow it as an early autumn crop.
Nowadays, there are many hybrids specifically designed to withstand warmer temperatures as well, and they also take less time to reach maturity. Ensure the supplier’s specifications on your packet of Chinese cabbage seeds to find the variety that best suits your climate.
Temperature is the most important factor when growing Chinese cabbage. It should start high during the germination and early leaf growing stages and gradually drop as the cabbage head begins to form. If exposed to temperatures that exceed 86 °F (30 °C) during the later stage, your cabbage may not form a head, and it will also start growing flowers.
2. Germinating Chinese cabbage
Start by germinating your Chinese cabbage seeds indoors, in compostable seed pots. The seeds are tiny and germinate quickly, so you don’t need to worry about soaking them before sowing.
Fill each seed pot with compost and potting soil mix, and place one seed in each pot. Use a watering pump to water the soil. At this stage, aim for a temperature range between 70 °F and 77 °F (21 °C to 25 °C).
Germination will occur as early as 3 days after sowing but can take up to a week if indoor temperatures are too low. Once the seeds have sprouted, maintain the same temperature range, and keep the young plants well-watered. After 2 weeks, your young cabbage plants will have three or four pairs of leaves each. They are now ready to be transplanted to the garden, so let’s look at what the next step entails.
3. Growing Chinese cabbage outdoors
Chinese cabbage is very tolerant to cold, and the young plants can be moved outdoors as soon as soil temperatures stay above 41 °F (5 °C). As a result, they are ideal for growing as an early spring crop, before many other vegetables can take root in your garden.
You can grow Chinese cabbage in either full sun or partial shade. If you live somewhere with sweltering summers, partial shade is recommended. This will encourage healthy growth and a well-formed cabbage head and prevent the soil from drying out too quickly. Whichever part of your garden you choose for your cabbages, make sure that they get about 6 hours of sunlight per day.
Prepare the soil for your Chinese cabbage by turning it over to a depth of 6 inches (15 cm). This will ensure that the soil is well-draining and allow you to remove any stones, debris, and weed roots. A pH range of 6.5 to 7.5 is perfect for these plants. Add plenty of compost and manure, which will provide the Chinese cabbage seedlings with the nutrients they need during the growing stage.
– Transplanting and spacing
Plant your Chinese cabbage seedlings one foot (30 cm) apart to give the head plenty of space to develop later on. Do not remove them from their seed pots. The seedling roots are very shallow and fragile and can easily tear in the process. Dig a hole deep enough for the compostable pot to fit into, and then cover with a bit of soil around the edges. The pot will decompose naturally over time.
Keep your Chinese cabbage plants well-watered. During hot and dry periods, you will need to water them at least a couple of times a week, to a depth of 1 inch. Chinese cabbage has very shallow roots, and as a result, it will not tolerate drought.
If your soil has been prepared with the right amendments and is rich in organic matter, you don’t need to provide Chinese cabbage with fertilizers. However, you will need to provide a liquid fertilizer after the first 3 weeks for more deficient soil. You can use fertilizers with a nutrient ratio of 20-20-20 or use organic ones such as fish emulsion.
After it’s been transplanted to your garden, Chinese cabbage goes through two growing stages:
- The rosette stage: at this point, your Chinese cabbage plants will look very similar to lettuce. The leaves are broad, wide, and growing at an angle, often covering the ground. This stage usually takes 3 weeks after the seedlings have been moved to the garden.
- The heading stage: after 3 weeks in the garden soil, you will notice that your Chinese cabbages are starting to grow upright leaves. After another 2 weeks, the leaves will begin to close in the center, as they start forming the iconic Napa cabbage head. It’s not uncommon for some of the bottom leaves to start yellowing and falling off during this stage.
Chinese cabbage is very sensitive to high temperatures as the leafy head begins to form. The ideal temperature range is between 53 °F and 73 °F (12 °C to 23 °C). This may be difficult to achieve if you’re growing it during summer, given that temperatures start rising each day just as the cabbage head is taking shape.
As long as temperatures don’t exceed 86 °F (30 °C), you should still be able to grow a good head on your cabbage, without it bolting. But suppose you live in a region with very hot summers. In that case, our recommendation is to either grow heat-resistant Chinese cabbage hybrids or wait until late summer and early autumn to start growing these vegetables in your garden.
4. How to harvest Chinese cabbage
Chinese cabbage can take anywhere between 60 and 100 days to reach maturity. It can be harvested as early as 3 weeks after the start of the heading stage. At this point, the cabbage head is small and consists of loosely clustered leaves, but it will still be tasty enough to use in cooking. However, to harvest a fully grown cabbage head, waiting at least 3 months after sowing is recommended.
To test that your Chinese cabbage has a fully formed head that is ready to harvest, give it a light squeeze. It should feel firm to the touch, with a compact bundle of leaves growing upright in the middle. The size might vary, depending on the variety, but it should typically be around 10 inches (25 cm) tall.
Harvest your Chinese cabbage by pulling the entire plant from the ground. The roots are thin and shallow, so they should come out quickly. Use a knife to cut the plant’s base, where the roots are attached, then manually remove the outer layer of green leaves. The leaves used for cooking should have a wide, fleshy petiole, with crinkled edges that are light green or yellow.
– Storing Chinese cabbage
After harvesting, Chinese cabbage can be kept in the vegetable drawer of your fridge for up to 2 weeks. You can extend its shelf-life by covering it in plastic wrap. Avoid washing it before storage, as this will cause the leaves to mold or become soft and mushy.
Uses for Chinese cabbage
Chinese white cabbage has a mild, sweet flavor, and it’s a lot less pungent than its Western counterpart. Even if you don’t like cabbage, there’s an excellent chance you will love eating Napa cabbage.
The leaves are crunchy, tender and juicy, and can be eaten both raw and cooked. They are rich in antioxidants and fiber, have low sugar content, and are packed full of magnesium and vitamins B, C, and K.
There are many ways in which you can enjoy Chinese cabbage. The leaves take less time to cook than regular cabbage and work correctly in stir-fries, stews, soups, shredded into slaws, boiled, steamed, grilled, or used as a dumpling wrap in low-carb diets. You can also use Chinese cabbage to make the iconic Korean pickles, kimchi.
Other varieties of Asian cabbage for your garden
Napa cabbage is the best-known variety of Asian cabbage and likely the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name ‘Chinese cabbage.‘ Yet many other Chinese cabbage types are delicious and easy to grow in your garden, using the same growing and care guide.
Here are just a few different types of cabbage we recommend.
1. Taiwan cabbage
A cabbage variety that produces large, squat, and slightly flattened heads, Taiwan cabbage is very similar to Western cabbage. It is a relatively new cultivar, developed in Taiwan and becoming increasingly popular across southeastern Asia. The taste and aroma are a lot less pungent, with a sweet flavor and juicy leaves.
2. Korean cabbage
A small, loose-leaf variety, the Korean cabbage is non-heading. It resembles lettuce in its looks, producing tender leaves with crunchy, white stalks. This variety grows much faster than heading cultivars such as Napa or Taiwan cabbage. It can tolerate heat and is resistant to pests and diseases. It’s a perfect choice for beginner gardeners or those living in climates that are too hot for growing Napa cabbage.
3. Tokyo Bekana
Widely grown in Japan, Tokyo Bekana is also a loose-leaf, non-heading Asian cabbage. The leaves are green and tender, with a mild sweetness and a distinctive peppery aroma. Fast-growing and unpretentious, it can tolerate light frost and partial shade. Tokyo Bekana was cultivated on the International Space Station! So if it can grow in space, it deserves a spot in your vegetable garden.
Growing Chinese cabbage at home is a great way to ensure a plentiful supply of this delicious veg, as fresh as can be. As you’ve seen, it’s pretty easy to grow at home, and there are many varieties that you can choose from.
Let’s go over the basics.
- Chinese cabbage is a cold season plant and thrives in spring and early autumn.
- It’s easiest to germinate the seeds indoors before transplanting them outside.
- You can harvest Chinese cabbage anywhere between 60 and 100 days on average, though for more flavor, it’s best to let it mature a bit rather than harvesting too soon.
- Chinese cabbage is an extremely healthy and versatile ingredient that can take your Asian cooking to the next level.
So, with that in mind, grab your Chinese cabbage seeds and get sowing!