The students have returned to school, your mailbox is crammed with a new crop of seed catalogs, the leaves are falling, and the days are getting shorter. Drive by your local garden center or roadside stand and the displays are filled with ornamental kales and cabbages. Autumn has arrived.
Long after the first snowfall and frost have erased most traces of life in your garden, ornamental kale and cabbage glow brightly in beds and containers. Both are members of the Brassica family, which also includes broccoli, turnip, mustard, and cauliflower.
These biennial crops are grown as annuals, and come in a beautiful range of colors and leaf shapes. Flowering cabbage has broad, flat, leaves, while the leaves of kale are curly and frilly around the edges. The plants come in shades of white, green, pink, coral, purple, and red, and they often grow about a foot wide and 15 inches tall. Their colors, which are concentrated in the center of the plant, intensify as the temperatures get lower, a characteristic loved by gardeners.
Ornamental cabbage and kale look beautiful in the front of a border or mixed together in window boxes and containers. Combine them with chrysanthemums, sedum, ornamental grasses, and asters for a beautiful fall scene. Their shallow root systems make it easy to transplant them from the garden to the indoors.
Place them in eight- or ten-inch pots in bright light and a cool location for a long-lasting display. You also can use them in flower arrangements. For a quick and easy tabletop arrangement, rest a plant–roots and all–in an opaque shallow vase. To keep the plants thriving, remove their lower leaves as they begin to fade.
Ornamental cabbage and kale are generally planted in late summer, since they are more prone to pest damage in warmer months. Although very hardy, they require rich, organic soil, full sun, and regular watering. The plants should be spaced approximately 12 to 14 inches apart and fertilized once every three weeks with an all-purpose fertilizer. Mulching helps to keep the lower leaves from coming in contact with the soil. The seeds can be planted outside in early summer.
Cabbageworms, aphids, and flea beetles prey upon kale and cabbage. Growing them in the cooler months takes care of this problem, but you can cover them with floating row cover to keep the bugs from reaching them.
Many people cook and eat kale, which contains beta-carotene, calcium, and vitamin C. The leaves can be blanched, steamed, or stir fried, or added to soup. But avoid eating the roots of the plant, which are harmful.
To store the leaves after picking them, wash them in cold water, pat them dry, and wrap them in paper towels. Place them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator and they will last up to a week (after that, the leaves start to wilt and the flavor grows harsh). And if you’re looking for a pretty way to perk up your Thanksgiving table, just pop out to the garden and pick a few leaves to garnish a platter.
ORNAMENTAL BRASSICA: MORE THAN JUST CABBAGES
By Diana Lawrence
Extension Master Gardener
University of Vermont