Ornamental kale provides a punch of color
By Deb Walker
Master Gardener Volunteer
Now that I’ve replaced my petunias with pansies, I’m looking for a larger plant to place in the middle of the planters.
Last year my neighbor had the most beautiful cabbage-like plant on his porch, and so I thought I’d take a closer look at ornamental kale as a new addition this fall. The garden shops have it in stock, and some of them can grow to be quite the show-stoppers.
It’s the leaves of this plant, instead of the flowers, that are so colorful, and often seen in large plantings or edgings. They can be gray-green or purple variegated, with lots of color choices for the center: pink, rose, red, purple, white or cream. I was surprised to see that the small ones in the garden shops are not very showy right now. The dramatic colors don’t show up until after it gets cold or after the first frost.
Both ornamental cabbage and kale are in the same species, Brassica oleracea, and are actually edible, but some are bred for their hardiness, and aren’t as flavorful and rather tough. The plants that have the smooth leaf edges are considered the cabbages and the fancy lacy “fringed” or “feathered” ones are the kale. They get about 18 inches tall and wide and should be put in full sun or partial shade.
Timing is very important in planting these ornamentals. If you plant them too early in the fall, they may stay green and get tall and thin, and be prone to cabbage pests. If the plant gets root-bound, it may not fill out as full as you’d like, or stay small. If you are only buying a few, it may be to your advantage to buy larger plants, with short stems, later in the fall.
They grow best in slightly acidic soil, which is dried out between waterings. You can also start them from seed about 6-10 weeks before you want full-sized plants, or anticipate a good frost. If you are transplanting from flats, just make sure that you continue to repot before the roots get bound.
Kale is hardy and will last well into the winter if the plants have been gradually acclimated to their surroundings and the weather. A sudden cold snap can still be deadly, but it’s not unusual for the plants to last through Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, if the weather turns too warm, the plant bolts or produces the flowering portion of the plant, and you get this tall tower of a flower instead of the pretty rosette, although I’m looking forward to seeing the flower, as well.
Deb Walker is a Master Gardener volunteer with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County.