Ornamental cabbage and kale add color to fall garden

August 21, 2013
Ornamental cabbage look best in large beds where the leaf color stands out.

Ah, the lowly cabbage and kale. Plain and green and not at all colorful - or are they? On the Channel Islands off the coast of Britain, they grow up to 7 feet tall with woody stems that are dried and finished into walking sticks or canes. Other cabbages and kales are more compact and used mostly for iron-rich, vitamin-fortified eating greens. All through the Middle Ages, kale was the most common green vegetable in Europe.

But many of us grow this humble green not for food but for its looks. Ornamental or flowering kale and flowering cabbage grow large rosettes of white, pink, purple or red leaves for the fall garden. Both cabbage and kale belong to the same species, Brassica oleracea, and the differences between the two are minor. Ornamental cabbage usually has smooth-edged leaves, and flowering kale has wavy or fringed leaf margins.

These fall beauties look best in large beds where their leaf color can stand out. Because they are low, growing only a foot or so tall, they are perfect for edging and borders.

You can of course pot them up; try several in one pot for a massed effect. Mix them in with other cool-weather flowers such as snapdragons (Antirrhinum spp.), petunias (Petunia spp.) and especially red or yellow fall chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum spp.).

Ornamental cabbages and kales prefer cool weather. Late August and early September are perfect for setting out plants. When you buy plants at a nursery, choose the largest plants you can find with short stems and relatively uniform-length leaves.

They do best in slightly acidic soil with a pH of 5.8 to 6.5. Let the soil dry out slightly between waterings.

If you want to grow ornamental cabbage and kale from seeds, you will need to plant them in early to late spring. Rather than going through the trouble of starting them in seed flats or pots, direct seed them right into your garden. Plant the seeds just 1/4-inch deep and thin to about a foot apart.

Since their roots grow horizontally around the plant, close to the soil surface, they benefit from a good mulch. Use a mix of grass clippings, clean straw and compost to keep the soil cool, hold in moisture, and allow the tiny feeder roots to nourish the plants. After a month or two, fertilize with organic manure tea or diluted fish emulsion.

Ornamental cabbage and kale are both edible, though they may taste a little more bitter than other greens. You can cut down on the bitterness by steaming or boiling the greens or gently sautéing in olive oil, perhaps with garlic and bacon.

Whether you start from seeds or plants, add flowering kale and ornamental cabbage to your garden, and you will be rewarded with a blast of easy-to-care-for fall color. As a bonus, you can clip some leaves and fry them up with bacon and olive oil for a nutritious dish that is, shall we say, pretty enough to eat.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.