Long before kale became a trending food, its decorative cousin was a star of the garden, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. Ornamental kale is not only prized for its ruffled foliage and eye-catching rosette, it actually thrives in cold weather. Add to that the fact that it stays attractive well into fall (in some areas even lasting through winter) and I’d say kale is a great choice for cool-season gardens and containers.
What is the difference between cabbage and kale?
Cabbage and kale are part of the same species called Brassica oleracea (which also includes broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts), but the two plants are structurally different. Cabbage is a multi-layered vegetable whose leaves come together to form a head.
By contrast, kale has upright leaves and a tight, inner rosette that resembles a flower.
Ornamental kale is specifically bred to produce spectacular leaves and colorful rosettes. It varies widely in form. The outer leaves, which are typically blue-green, can be wavy, ruffled, crinkled or curled. And the rosettes, which grow larger as temperatures cool, shift gradually from soft greens to bright shades of purple, pink, red, white and even yellow.
Vivid coloring and exotic form make ornamental kale a stunning addition to winter gardens where it combines well with other cool-season flowers such as pansies, violas and primroses. Best of all, once nighttime temperatures fall below 60 degrees, the plants’ rosette starts taking on increasingly vibrant colors. Ornamental kale usually reaches a crescendo of color just after the first frost, with some plants maintaining their intense color all the way into spring.
Flowering kale requires very little maintenance and is bothered by few pests. Plants prefer moist, well-drained soil and regular feeding. For the best color, plant ornamental kale in full sun.
It’s best to buy large plants (one gallon size), since there won’t be much top growth after September. Keep spacing tight (10 to 12 inches) to encourage the florets to remain small and watch as daily, the leaves intensify in color. Some of the more popular varieties of flowering kale include:
Redbor is a tall variety with narrow, upright deep purple, ruffled leaves. It is the tallest kale grown and can reach as high as 3 feet tall. Aside from its interesting texture and stunning burst of color, it looks great in the garden massed behind smaller cool-season annuals like chrysanthemums, pansies and violas.
Kale Glamour Red won the 2011 All America Selections (AAS) award for Best Cool Season Bedding Plant. Its unique shiny leaves and intense color make it a standout among other standard varieties. The fringe-leaved variety has a magenta flower head surrounded by dark green leaves. Plants range in size from 10 to 12 inches.
Peacock series ornamental kale are large, open and frilly plants that can grow to 2 feet across. They feature deeply serrated, feather-like leaves that surround cream or red-toned centers. Extremely cold hardy, they can survive even the harshest winters.
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 change color.
Osaka Pink, Osaka White and Osaka Red are often termed ornamental cabbage due to their smooth, flat leaves and tightly-packed florets. The plants produce layers of wavy edged leaves that remain green while the plants’ center rosettes change to bright purple, pink or cream.
Good companion plants to ornamental kale
Due to its large size, ornamental kale looks great when planted individually in single pots. The plants also work well when massed in the garden, particularly when different varieties are mixed together to form patterns. The plants really shine in a parterre garden, where the deep green, miniature leaves of the surrounding evergreen shrubbery act as a great counterpoint to the colorful, broad-leaved ornamentals.
In larger containers and planter boxes, stunning compositions can be created from the taller, frilly purple and green kale varieties and the rounder, broad-leaf Osaka. Here, the trailing ends of bright green lysimachia soften the mix.
Since ornamental kale maintains its color well into winter, it makes a great addition to any cold-weather container. Here, a creamy white variety is paired with weeping evergreen foliage, pinecones and yellow catkins in a stunning winter arrangement.
In the garden, deep purple kales like Redbor pair well with salmon chrysanthemums and ornamental grasses such as Maiden grass that feature creamy white plumes.
Flowering kales also mix well with plants that have similar toned foliage, such as heucheras, purple fountain grass and coleus. Here, a lime green potato vine sets up a vivid color contrast.
To learn more about ornamental kale, its varieties and how to care for them, check out this great website, gardenartisans.com.