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Plant Ornamental Cabbage and Kale to Replace Frost-Bitten Annuals

Dorothy is a Master Gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape/nature photographer in NM.

Ornamental kale, surrounded by other gorgeous flowers, makes an eye-popping container.

Ornamental kale, surrounded by other gorgeous flowers, makes an eye-popping container.

Not Tasty, But Spectacular to View

Don't you get a little sad when the weather starts getting colder and the flowering annuals that you had admired for so long start to die? Removing them from the ground feels a tad depressing for many people who dread a winter with no flowers. But, that doesn't necessarily have to happen. Don't put your gardening gloves away just yet, there is still some planting to be done and some beautiful plants that will bring about some oohs and ahhs. You can always dress up your cool-season garden with the colorful foliage of ornamental kale and cabbage.

Although they are sometimes called flowering kale and flowering cabbage, these two related plants rarely put out real flowers. Ornamental kale (Brassica oleracea) and its cousin, the ornamental cabbage, were developed for their spectacular colors and foliage.

Some people say they are edible and others say they are inedible, but that's probably because they have a very bitter taste, although they are often used as a food garnish. They are planted, instead, for their colorful and extravagantly-ruffled, feathered leaves. The two plants are similar in color, size and overall appearance, but the main difference is that the cabbage leaves have smooth edges and the kale leaves are very frilly.

Both plants are ideal as a part of your container gardening. Alongside other plants, such as poppies, pansies, or ornamental peppers, they create a gorgeous display of beautiful blues, purples, greens, and whites for fall and winter. They love the chilly weather when nighttime temperatures dip down to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live in a milder climate, you can expect them to continue looking great throughout the winter.

The Beauty of Ornamental Kale Outdoors

Aside from the spectacular beauty of ornamental kale, the plants don't require pinching, pruning or staking, which should be appealing to most gardeners.

Aside from the spectacular beauty of ornamental kale, the plants don't require pinching, pruning or staking, which should be appealing to most gardeners.

Ornamental Kale in a Planter

Ornamental kale is beautiful in a planter surrounded by other colorful flowers. They are a perfect plant for growing in pots to display on porches, patios, or beside entryways.

Ornamental kale is beautiful in a planter surrounded by other colorful flowers. They are a perfect plant for growing in pots to display on porches, patios, or beside entryways.

Growing Ornamental Kale and Cabbage

The growing information for both ornamental kale and cabbage is the same. They both need to be planted in an area that receives full sun and should be spaced about 18-24 inches apart, depending on the type you are planting.

  • The soil needs to be well-drained and nutrient-rich (high in organic matter). Planting beds need to have about 3-4 inches of organic matter worked in before planting.
  • During the growing season, keep the soil consistently moist. Add mulch to aid in maintaining consistent soil moisture.
  • These plants will tolerate hard frosts, but those that experience hard freezes will not store as well, so harvest before the temperature dip below 28 degrees Fahrenheit if you plan to store the heads in a refrigerated area for any length of time.

Damaging Pests

Dusty gray to dull green cabbage aphids are capable of forming large colonies on plants. Aphids also like to feed between leaf layers where most insecticides can't reach.

Dusty gray to dull green cabbage aphids are capable of forming large colonies on plants. Aphids also like to feed between leaf layers where most insecticides can't reach.

No Plant Is Problem Free

Some of the pests you need to watch for include:

  • Cabbage loopers - This is a small green caterpillar that can defoliate your plant in only a few days, so look for multiples holes in the leaves and you will probably find this little wave of destruction hilding underneath the foliage.
  • Slugs - You should be able to recognize these planting nightmares by the slimy trail of mucus they leave behind as they move about your garden. They will chew on the leaves from the outer edges and can devour a young plant all the way down to the stem. The best way to get rid of slugs is to hand-pick them and squash them, or drop them in a bucket of salt water. If you are one of the rare people who prefer not to kill a slug, you can collect them in a bucket of leaves and transport them a few miles away from your garden. Or, you could bring them to me, as I have no qualms about killing these little plant-munching devils.
  • Aphids - Cabbage aphids can form large colonies on plants. If you have a large infestation, you might want to try releasing some ladybugs, a cute little bug that won't harm your plants but loves to have a lot of aphids for breakfast, lunch, and supper. Or, you can dilute a few tablespoons of any mild dish soap in a small bucket of lukewarm water, then use a sponge or spray bottle to apply the mixture to plants where aphids appear.
  • Flea beetles - These pests are small but very destructive and they have an insatiable appetite for your ornamental plants. You can get rid of them by applying an insecticidal dust. Naturally-derived spinosad and permethrin can also help in getting rid of them, but because these pests are very mobile, consistent applications are necessary.

Blackleg Cabbage Disease

Blackleg is one of several diseases  that can detrimentally affect your ornamental cabbage and kale, and there are no resistant varieties. It can only be managed and prevented with proper education.

Blackleg is one of several diseases that can detrimentally affect your ornamental cabbage and kale, and there are no resistant varieties. It can only be managed and prevented with proper education.

Great Companion Plants

There are a lot of plants that will grow very well with ornamental kale and cabbage because they give and receive benefits due to their close proximity. If you want to plant vegetables along with your kale and cabbage, gardeningknowhow.com suggests you try some of these:

  • Artichokes
  • Beets
  • Celery
  • Cucumber
  • Lettuce
  • Onion
  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Radishes
  • Spinach

Herbs that are suggested as companion plants include the following:

  • Garlic
  • Basil
  • Dill
  • Chamomile
  • Mint
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Thyme

References

  1. Nowak, Jeff (2003), "Ornamental Cabbage & Kale", Birds & Blooms, December/January 2003:14-15 Print

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney