We’re back with the next installment of our How to Grow Chinese Vegetables series. This time, we’re talking about how to grow napa cabbage, a versatile vegetable that’s great for long-term storage, pickling, fermenting, stir-frying, braising, adding to soups, making dumpling or wonton fillings, and even serving raw.
We’ll cover common varieties of napa cabbage, growing and harvesting best practices, and how to do your best to avoid common problems (of which there are many with this crop, as we soon realized!)
Christina Chan of Choy Division, a regenerative Asian vegetable and herb farm in the Hudson Valley, generously contributed her knowledge to this post. We also have a bunch of learnings from our own garden this spring/summer, as well as a video that Kaitlin put together talking about the whole experience!
You can still grow napa cabbage this year, for a fall harvest (it’s actually the best time to grow it!). Read on to find out how.
About Napa Cabbage & Why You’d Want to Grow It
Napa cabbage, sometimes referred to as simply, Chinese cabbage, is a large, pale green head-forming cabbage that is sweet and mild in flavor.
In Mandarin, it is known as dàbáicài (大白菜), which translates to “big white vegetable.” This contrasts with xiǎo báicài (小白菜), or “small white vegetable,” which is what many of you know as bok choy. In Cantonese, my grandparents on my dad’s side called napa cabbage “wong nga bok.”
Like other cruciferous veggies (mustards, broccoli, kale, etc.), it is part of the brassica family. It has a relatively high water content, making it crunchy with a refreshing taste.
Unlike most other leafy greens, it stores extremely well. When my mom was a child, her family would store napa cabbages from the fall harvest by tying them on strings from the rafters of their small home, and eat them throughout winter. We’ll talk more about storage later in this post!
As I mentioned in the introduction, napa is also incredibly versatile. We’ve featured it across many recipes over the years. It has starring roles in our:
- Chicken Wontons
- Braised Glass Noodles with Pork & Napa Cabbage
- Sichuan Napa Cabbage Stir-fry
- Northern Chinese Sour Cabbage Stew
- Pork & Cabbage Potstickers
It also lends texture and flavor to specialties like:
We’re rarely without napa cabbage in the fridge, and we were excited to try growing it ourselves for the first time this year!
Napa Cabbage Varieties
Here are some of Christina’s suggested varieties of napa cabbage, with links to seed sources!
- Minuet: a mini variety with 9-inch tall heads and an average mature weight of 2-3 pounds. Slow-bolting and resistant to downy mildew.
- Rubicon: a standard size napa cabbage (average 5-7 pounds), great for kimchi and many other uses!
- Scarlette: a standard size napa cabbage (average 4-6 pounds), but with purple leaves that look similar to radicchio!
- Blues: a standard size napa cabbage (average 4-6 pounds) bred for slow-bolting qualities and disease resistance.
Ideal Growing Conditions for Napa Cabbage
Napa cabbage can be grown both in spring and fall, but it should be planted early enough to avoid the peak heat of summer. In spring, Christina suggests planting immediately after the danger of frost has passed. Napa cabbage does best in temperatures between 50-80°F (10-27°C). It doesn’t enjoy temperatures over 80-85°F (27-29°C).
Napa is generally easier to grow in late summer/fall, as it performs well with gradually decreasing day length and cooling temperatures, rather than temperatures warming into the heat of summer. Like bok choy, napa cabbage is prone to bolting in the heat.
The cold also makes the napa cabbage sweeter, as the plant will produce sugars as an antifreeze. However, the cabbage will need to be closer to maturity to survive frosts.
While the plants should be able to bounce back from minor frost damage, if too young, they may sustain some damage at the ends of their leaves.
Napa cabbage can grow in full sun or partial sun, but will ideally get at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day, particularly in its early stages. If you live in a warmer climate, a part sun/part shade environment is better! In cooler climes, more sunlight is ideal.
Like bok choy, napa cabbage likes fertile, well-drained, but moisture-retentive soil. A 1- to 3-inch (about 5cm) layer of compost on top of the soil will provide the nutrients it needs.
Keep the soil moist but not soggy. It’s generally better to water deeply less often, rather than watering a little bit each day. If there’s heat in the forecast, give the plants a good drink to help them get through it.
Plants should be spaced about 12 inches (30cm) apart for mini varieties like Minuet, or 18 inches (46cm) for standard varieties like Rubicon, Scarlette, and Blues.
Days to Maturity
Napa cabbage takes about 50-80 days to mature, depending on the variety and growing conditions.
How to Sow Napa Cabbage Seeds
While you can direct sow napa cabbage seeds into the ground, their vulnerability to pests makes sowing in trays or plugs a safer approach. This allows the seedlings to get a head start before planting them outside, giving them a better chance of surviving pest damage.
Start your seeds indoors 3-5 weeks before planting them outside. In seed starter plugs filled with peat-free potting soil or garden compost, sow seeds ¼ inch (0.6cm) deep.
Water, and place in a warm place (or on a heated mat for faster germination). You can also cover the seed trays with a clear plastic lid (such as a recycled plastic salad box) to create humidity and encourage germination.
When the seedlings appear, remove any plastic lids. Place the seedlings in a well-lit, well-ventilated, cool area. They need a lot of light at this stage, or they may grow weak and spindly, reaching for light. If you have a greenhouse, great! If not, grow lights work well.
We grew our napa cabbage seedlings in a south-facing sunroom with what we thought was tons of natural light, but it wasn’t enough for the little seedlings. They grew leggy and a bit weak, which set back their growth once we transplanted them into the ground.
When 2 to 4 sets of true leaves (the leaves that emerge after the initial seed leaves) appear, they are ready to be hardened off and then transplanted into the ground outside.
To harden off the plants, place the seedlings (still in their trays) in a sheltered area outside to acclimate to the elements for about a week.
To transplant, tease out each seedling with as much of its root ball intact as possible, and plant into the ground 12 to 18 inches (30-46cm) apart (closer together for smaller varieties; farther apart for full-size cabbages). Water in well.
As you can see below, Christina planted her cabbages with weed blocking fabric and row covers:
We found pests to be a big problem, so we highly recommend the row covers in particular!
Here are some images of Christina’s healthy cabbages progressing through the season!
Harvesting & Storing
Here are Christina’s napa cabbage harvesting tips and guidelines!
- Napa (and all cabbages) are ready to harvest when they’ve fully headed up, i.e. when the leaves have curled tightly into each other. Squeeze the top of the plant; it should feel firm. If there is any give, it’s not quite ready. Check again in a few days.
- Harvest by pressing down the outer 1-2 layers of leaves to expose the core. Use a sharp knife to cut the cabbage at the base. Try not to cut any of the stems, as any cut leaves will not store well.
- If your cabbage does not fully head up, don’t worry. It’s still edible, and you can harvest it, particularly if temperatures are rising and your cabbages are at risk of bolting (going to seed prematurely).
- Mature fall-grown cabbages have a long harvest window, and can sit in the ground, as long as temperatures don’t dip too far below 32°F/0°C. In spring, the harvest window is shorter due to rising temperatures.
- Cabbage is a great storage vegetable! If you grow a lot, it can be stored in the fridge (or a root cellar) for months. Peel back any yellow outer leaves, and you will find the core is intact and delicious.
- When washing the napa cabbage right after harvest, do NOT dunk the entire head! You want to avoid getting water in between the leaves, as this promotes rot and molding, thus affecting its storability. Instead, cradle it like a baby, splash water on its cut end and outer leaves, and rub away any dirt.
Ok, let’s talk about pests. While napa is also vulnerable to problems like bolting and weed pressure, pests are by far their biggest garden adversary! (For more about bolting and weeds, check out our previous post on how to grow bok choy.)
A Garden Challenge!
According to Charles Dowding, a British horticulturist and author of several books on no-dig organic gardening, Chinese cabbage “is an exceptionally difficult vegetable to grow well, so when a good heart forms…you can congratulate yourself.” He goes on to say, “Although extremely fast-growing, Chinese cabbage is vulnerable to almost every pest in the garden: caterpillars, flea beetles, pigeons, and slugs.”
This is something that we found to be quite painfully true! As home gardeners who don’t use pesticides or chemicals in our garden, these were a challenge for us to grow.
The good news is that early damage on napa cabbage is less problematic than on a crop like bok choy, because the outer leaves of the cabbage are tougher (and can also be a bit bitter, as we found), so they’re not usually harvested.
Let’s start by identifying the problem.
Identifying Which Pests are Plaguing Your Napa!
- What You’re Seeing: Small holes in the leaves, or perhaps a sighting of very small, oblong shiny black insects that can jump like a flea.
- The Culprit: Flea Beetles
- What You’re Seeing: Large holes or chunks of leaves eaten away, dark green droppings that look like small pellets, caterpillars on the leaves, white moths flying around the garden.
- The Culprit: White cabbage moth in caterpillar form (also known as the cabbage white or cabbage worm)
- What You’re Seeing: Ragged holes eaten out of the leaves, slugs on the leaves.
- The Culprit: uh…slugs, if it wasn’t already obvious!
Ok, so what do you do about these pesky creatures feasting on your veggies? When it comes to the jumping and flying insects (i.e. the flea beetles and cabbage moths), Christina uses floating row covers—a thin, woven white fabric that allows light, air, and water to pass through. This fabric also traps heat, so if you live in a warmer climate, try ProtekNet, an insect netting that doesn’t trap heat.
Put this netting in place right after planting, and leave it on until maturity. Companion planting strong-smelling herbs like thyme, dill, oregano, lavender, onions, garlic, and marigolds can also deter cabbage moths and flea beetles.
For ground pests like slugs, be sure to remove any damp cardboard or rotting wood from the garden, which are comfortable slug habitats. Some say to put prickly barriers around your plants, like sharp sand and crushed egg shells.
We did this with the spiky burrs from our sweet gum tree. However, we found that a border around the entire garden bed was not sufficient. We were finding tons of slugs on our young napa cabbages. Then we transitioned to adding a ring of sweet gum burrs around every plant, and the problem subsided enough for the young plants to grow stronger. We went from finding about a dozen or more slugs each day, to finding only a few.
You may also try wildlife-safe and pet-safe slug repellents like Sluggo, which has been approved for organic use.
Of course, physically removing any cabbage moth caterpillars and slugs is also an important step! You won’t get them all, though, and it’s common to find caterpillars, slugs, and their droppings between the leaf layers. Just wash it off and it’s still good to eat.
What We Learned In Our First Napa Cabbage Season
Phew, growing napa cabbage can be challenging! This was our first year growing it, and we learned a ton for our fall planting.
We started our seeds indoors, and found that the heated mat helped them germinate quickly. There was an almost 100% germination rate, with healthy looking seedlings. We quickly found, however, that they didn’t have enough light. They reached towards our south facing window, resulting in leggy growth.
From there, the seedlings grew slowly, with smaller true leaves. See below for a comparison of our seedlings, versus Christina’s, which were grown in a greenhouse. Takeaway: grow lights are a must if you’re starting seeds indoors without a greenhouse.
Due to their slow, spindly growth indoors, we ended up leaving them in trays longer than is ideal. However, we hardened them off anyway and transplanted them even when they were a bit smaller than we’d have liked. Simply because they needed more light and nutrients to keep them going. This made them very vulnerable to pests in their early stages, and those small, tender leaves really got chewed up! Takeaway: don’t let seedlings languish too long in a seed tray, or give them a feed to keep them going!
We think this rough start contributed to slower than expected growth. We ended up with smaller cabbages that didn’t all quite fully form tight heads by the time we harvested them.
Every pest imaginable did seem to go for our cabbages, but particularly pronounced were the flea beetles and the slugs! As I mentioned in the pest section of this post, adding the spiky sweet gum tree balls around each plant did help, giving the young plants enough time to establish before they were completely eaten away.
The flea beetles came a bit later, but by the time we noticed them, it was sort of too late. They did some damage to the leaves, but it was mostly cosmetic, and the cabbage was still very much edible. That said, we have this takeaway: make use of floating row covers!!
We did completely lose some of our cabbages, though. Take a look at this:
We think this complete wilting of a few of our cabbages was caused by a couple things: 1) an overzealous application of alpaca tea (alpaca poo from our herd, soaked in water to make a liquid fertilizer) by my dad in the later stages of growth and 2) the recent heatwave in the northeast that saw about a week of high temperatures above 95°F (35°C).
Despite all of those challenges, though, we were able to harvest a good number of stunted, but still tasty cabbages.
We peeled away quite a few of the outer leaves, which were the most damaged, and also a bit tough and bitter (those went to our chickens and ducks as a snack).
With our first home-grown cabbage, we made a quick stir-fry and also a bowl of roast duck noodle soup!
Check out the video that Kaitlin put together about the experience!
Napa Cabbage Origins, Migration & Cultural Significance
Nicole Yeo, of the Choy Division team, helped us gather these facts, histories, and stories below!
Napa cabbage may have originated from the hybridization between two popular vegetables: bok choy and turnip. It grows all over the country, but it is especially beloved in the frigid northeastern provinces, where it comes out particularly large and sweet.
The first records of napa cabbage cultivation date back to the 15th Century in the Yangtze River region. It made its way to Korea (where it would become kimchi!), Japan, and the rest of Asia, then traveled to Europe, the Americas, and Australia with Chinese migrants.
The story of napa cabbage’s name reflects the intertwined foodways of Japan, China, and Korea. Contrary to the association with California’s Napa Valley, the word “napa” comes from colloquial and regional Japanese, where nappa (菜っ葉) refers to the leaves of any vegetable (similar to our use of the Cantonese word “choy”).
The Japanese name for this cabbage is hakusai (白菜), a Sino-Japanese reading of the Chinese name (白菜), literally “white vegetable.” The Korean name for napa cabbage, baechu (배추), is a nativized word from the Sino-Korean reading, baekchae, of the same Chinese characters.
Napa cabbage is a symbol of prosperity in China and often appears in glass and porcelain figures. In northern China, love and reverence for napa cabbage is even commemorated by a 70-foot-tall cabbage statue!
Language preserves the association between napa cabbage and prosperity. The word báicài (白菜 – “white vegetable”) is a homonym to bǎi cái (百财), which translates to “a hundred riches,” or simply, “fortune.”
In Northern China, napa cabbage was once one of the most important sources of nutrients during long winter seasons. The cabbages sat in piles at markets, where locals would purchase a huge supply for the winter (we’re talking like, 50 pounds!).
It’s a hearty vegetable that keeps for a long time: even when the outer leaves wither, the inner leaves are still good. Traditionally, farmers would further preserve their excess harvest by soaking them in brine to make suāncài (酸菜 – “sour cabbage”). (Check out our Northern Chinese Sour Cabbage Stew, which is made with this pickled napa cabbage.) The plant is preserved in the Northern Chinese saying, “baicai is better than a hundred vegetables.”
We hope this post on how to grow napa cabbage has offered some good tips and do’s and don’ts. Let it serve you well later this summer into fall (the best time to grow napa!), and in future years!
We’d like to thank Christina and her team at Choy Division for working on this awesome series with us, and for sharing their photos, advice, research, and stories. Check out the Choy Division website to learn more about their mission to grow East Asian heritage crops and expand food diversity and access across New York City!
So far, we’ve been in brassica-land with bok choy and napa cabbage. Next month, we’re moving on to Chinese eggplant. (We already harvested one beauty last week, so we’re excited to share more!) Then in September, it’ll be all about chili peppers, and we’ll talk about garlic chives in October.
Until then, please share your thoughts, questions, and gardening tips in the comments below!