When gardeners think about planting fall plant color in the landscape mums usually come to mind. Right now, at the various retail and garden centers there are an abundance of different colors to choose from. An alternative to mums that can be planted now that will also give color in the flower bed from fall until next spring are the flowering cabbages and kales. Flowering cabbage and kale offer plants which are both colorful and long-lasting in the landscape. While many of our flowering plants, including garden mums, lose their flowers and/or color after several frosts, flowering cabbage and kale will intensify in color and may, if we have our usual mild winter, last until next spring.
As a result of extensive plant breeding there are many cultivars of Brassica oleracea, or flowering cabbage and kale to choose from. These various cultivars offer solid growth habits and forms and very nice foliar coloration. The “flower” of ornamental cabbage and kale consists of the central leaves of the plant. These leaves will lose chlorophyll after several days of night temperatures below 50º F to reveal the coloration which ranges from white to pink to red to purple. The intensity of the coloration will depend on the length of time the plants are exposed to cool temperatures. Usually this occurs between two and four weeks after planting for the plants to develop the deep intense foliage coloration.
Flowering cabbage and kale are divided into groups based on the shape of the leaf. Cultivars with smooth leaf margins constitute the flowering cabbage group while those with divided or “fringed” leaf margins are considered flowering kale. Within the kale group there are two types: the most common are the “fringed leaved cultivars” which have finely ruffled leaf margins and a smaller number which are called “feather leaved cultivars” have leaves that are finely serrated and deeply notched. Cultivar selection will depend on growth habit and coloration.
The Chidori series with its fringed ruffled leaves and intense colors have become the most popular. One type known as the ‘Tokyo’ series comes in deep maroon, purple and white. The Peacock and Sparrow series are also recommended as some of the most attractive. Within each series there is normally a white, pink, and red cultivar. Ornamental cabbages and kales can survive winter temperatures as low as 5 degrees F. Light and moderate frosts will intensify the brilliant foliage coloring of these plants. It is important that when purchasing ornamental cabbage or kale, you look for plants with a short rosette-type stem. If the transplants are allowed to become root bound in their pots, they will not get much larger after they are planted. I recommend that you buy the biggest plants you can find, even though they may cost more.
In September and early October cabbage loopers may still feed on the plants. Their feeding results in unsightly holes throughout the plant. The first or second hard frost will do these loopers in, however. Ornamental cabbage and kale should be planted in a sunny location in a moderately moist, well drained, rich soil. Prepare soil by incorporating 3 to 4 inches of organic matter and 2 pounds of a slow release, 12-6-6 or similar 2 -1-1 ratio fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed space. The plants will reach 6 to 12 inches in height, and you will want to space them 12 to 18 inches apart.
After the first hard frost add a layer of mulch to help stabilize soil temperatures and conserve moisture. Flowering kale and cabbage excel with beds of brightly colored pansies, violas, panolas and snapdragons. I am partial to the purple types grown with yellow pansies. Flowering kale and cabbage leaves do make very decorative garnishes for holiday feasts but don’t add them to the salad! Happy Gardening!
Interested in fall lawn care? Cherokee County Master Gardeners are offering a Restoring and Establishing Turf webinar on Friday, Sept. 24 from noon to 1:30 p.m. To register, visit cherokeemastergardeners.com. This webinar will include information and instruction for establishing, maintaining, and repairing turfgrass in Georgia. Learn the techniques and secrets that will make your yard the best it can be. Then, join us for an in-depth webinar presented by one of our amazing Master Gardeners!