Flowering Kale: The Coolest Cool-Season Ornamental

Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The plant is not only prized for its striking foliage but it’s also one of only a few species that thrives in cold weather. Indeed, flowering kale likes cold temperatures so much that it often stays attractive well into winter. I can’t think of a better choice for fall gardens and containers.

IS IT CABBAGE OR KALE?

For many gardeners, things can get confusing at the nursery. That’s because, even though they belong to one family, cabbage and kale are not the same. Cabbage is a multi-layered vegetable whose leaves come together to form a head.

Cabbage head growing in the garden

Whereas kale has a cluster of open, upright leaves called a rosette.

The bright pink rosette of flowering kale.

Ornamental kale

That being said, you will generally find kale varieties with broad, flat leaves labeled ‘ornamental cabbage’ and those with ruffled, crinkled or curled leaves labeled  ‘ornamental kale’ at the store. 

BORN TO BE BEAUTIFUL

Flowering kale is selectively bred to produce spectacular leaves and rosettes. It comes in all shapes and sizes. The outer leaves are typically blue-green in tone. And the rosettes start out pale green before shifting to pink, red, purple, or cream depending on the variety. They gradually expand as temperatures cool.

The distinctive, blue-green outer leaves of ornamental kale

In recent years, innovations in color and form have made ornamental kale a staple of many fall gardens. Moreover, the new hues combine beautifully with cool-season flowers like chrysanthemums, marigolds and pansies. With so much variety, there’s a kale for just about every type of container. 

Magenta-toned flowering kale with ruffled edges.

Flowering kale rosette featuring ruffled edges

But perhaps best of all, flowering kale reaches its crescendo just after the first frost. This is a time when most other plants have withered. Some varieties even retain their color all the way until spring.

flowering kale covered with snow

IS KALE A PERENNIAL?

Kale is a biennial, which means it has a two-year life cycle. The first year it produces leaves and the second year it produces flowers. Most people grow it for its ornamental qualities, however, and discard the plant after the first year. 

HOW TO CARE FOR FLOWERING KALE 

Ornamental kale and cabbage require very little maintenance and are bothered by few pests. In addition to preferring moist, well-drained soil, they enjoy a little light feeding. For the best color, it helps to position them in full sun.

I look for plants in one-gallon size pots, then keep the spacing tight (10 to 12 inches) to encourage the rosettes to remain small. Over time, they usually attain a width of approximately 12 inches.

Small garden with geometric display of yellow and pink flowering kale.

THE MOST POPULAR VARIETIES

Interested in learning more? Here are some of the most popular varieties:

REDBOR

Redbor has narrow, upright deep purple, ruffled leaves. It is the tallest kale grown and can reach a height of 3 feet. I’ve used it on its own to fill a parterre garden (the tall, frilly foliage contrasts beautifully with the clean-cut box). Or, try using it as a backdrop to annuals like chrysanthemums, pansies and violas in contrasting colors.

Redbor kale

Purple-leaved Redbor kale

PEACOCK SERIES

Peacock series ornamental kale are large, open and frilly plants that can reach 2 feet across. They feature deeply serrated, feather-like leaves and cream or red-toned centers. Extremely cold hardy, they can survive even the harshest of winters. White and silver look amazing with these varieties.

Peacock series ornamental kale

Deeply serrated, feather-like leaves distinguish Peacock kale

PIGEON SERIES

Pigeon Series (Pigeon Pink and Pigeon Red Pigeon Purple and Pigeon White) ornamental kale most closely resemble cabbage with their tight rosettes of light pink, dark red or creamy white. The round-shaped plants have wavy outer leaves that remain medium to dark green while the flower-like centers slowly change color. I often combine different varieties to form geometric patterns.

Pigeon series flowering kale

The tight rosettes of ornamental kale ‘Pigeon Series’

OSAKA

Osaka Pink, Osaka White and Osaka Red are often termed ornamental cabbage due to their smooth, flat leaves and tightly-packed rosettes. The plants produce layers of wavy edged green leaves while the florets gradually change to bright purple, pink or cream. These varieties are more structured in form and will stand on their own in a container.

Osaka series flowering kale

Osaka series ornamental kale has flat green leaves like cabbage

DESIGNING WITH FLOWERING KALE

Flowering kale’s wide range of colors and shapes can offer endless design possibilities. Below is a parterre garden I created using two broad-leaved varieties. We planted them tightly together to play up the geometrics.

Parterre garden with geometric arrangement of white and purple flowering kale.

Parterre with two different varieties of ornamental kale/herebydesign.net

In large containers, tall, frilly purple and green varieties like the broadleaf Osaka can create a strong contrast with other, smaller plants. Below, the trailing ends of bright green lysimachia add drama to the composition.

The Impatient Gardener/Pinterest

In this small container, I’ve combined ornamental ‘cabbage’ with violas and Swedish ivy. I chose the greenish-purple kale to complement the colors of the dusty red pot.

Fall container with pansies, Swedish ivy and flowering kale.

Fall container with ornamental kale/herebydesign

In this formal urn, I’ve used tall grass as the ‘thriller’. The ‘fillers’ and ‘spillers’ consist of different varieties of red and green flowering kale, purple violas and mahogany-toned potato vine. The effect is a lush, warm-toned composition.

Fall container with purple fountain grass, mahogany sweet potato vine and frilly green flowering kale.

Fall container with grasses, flowering kale and potato vine/herebydesign

Since ornamental kale retains its color well into winter, it can make a stunning addition to holiday arrangements.  Here, a green and white frilly variety pairs beautifully with evergreen branches, pinecones and catkins.

Photo Credit/Canadian Gardening Magazine

In this fall garden, the deep purple Redbor sets up a gorgeous color contrast with salmon chrysanthemums and straw-colored grasses. The maiden grasses’ creamy plumes add a nice textural touch to the composition.

Photo Credit/The Hoosier Gardener

Finally, when combining flowering kales with other plants, think about varying the foliage. Here, purple fountain grass and lime green potato vine provide color. And the frilly purple variety lends contrast. 

Photo Credit/Three Dogs In A Garden

Ready to get started? Check out your local nursery for the newest ornamental kale varieties. And don’t be afraid to combine them with other cool-season companions like evergreen branches, dried flower heads, catkins and berries. These fillers will add interest to your containers and keep the show going well into fall.

 

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