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 just 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?
Things can get confusing at the store. Even though they belong to the same 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.
That being said, you will generally find kale varieties with broad, flat leaves labeled as ‘ornamental cabbage’ and those with ruffled, crinkled or curled leaves labeled as ‘ornamental kale’ at the nursery.
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 ‘must-have’ in fall gardens. The new hues work beautifully with other cool-season flowers like chrysanthemums, pot marigolds and pansies. And the variety in sizes makes the plant suited to just about every container.
Flowering kale rosette featuring ruffled edges
Best of all, flowering kale reaches its crescendo just after the first frost when most other flowers have withered. Some plants even maintain their intensity all the way until spring.
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 throw it out after the first year.
FLOWERING KALE CARE
Ornamental kale and cabbage require very little maintenance and are bothered by few pests. They prefer moist, well-drained soil and benefit from feeding. For the best color, position your plants in full sun.
Since there won’t be much top growth after September, look for plants in one-gallon size pots. Then keep spacing tight (10 to 12 inches) to encourage the rosettes to remain small. Over time, they’ll attain a width of approximately 12 inches.
THE MOST POPULAR VARIETIES
Interested in learning more? Here are some of the most popular varieties:
Redbor has narrow, upright deep purple, ruffled leaves. It is the tallest kale grown and can reach a height of 3 feet. Use it by itself in a parterre garden, or try massing it behind annuals like chrysanthemums, pansies and violas in contrasting colors.
Purple-leaved Redbor kale
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.
Deeply serrated, feather-like leaves distinguish Peacock kale
Pigeon Series (Pigeon Pink and Pigeon Red Pigeon Purple and Pigeon White) ornamental kale most closely resembles cabbage with its 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. I’ll often combine different colors to form geometric patterns.
The tight rosettes of ornamental kale ‘Pigeon Series’
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.
Osaka series ornamental kale has flat green leaves like cabbage
IDEAS FOR DESIGNING WITH FLOWERING KALE
Flowering kale’s wide range of sizes make it equally attractive mixed with other flowers or all on its own in a garden or container. Below is a parterre garden I created using two broad-leaved varieties.
Parterre with two different varieties of ornamental kale/herebydesign.net
The tall, frilly purple and green varieties and the broadleaf Osaka make a contrasting statement in large containers. In this planter box, the trailing ends of bright green lysimachia soften the mix.
The Impatient Gardener/Pinterest
In this small container, I’ve combined ornamental ‘cabbage’ with violas and Swedish ivy. The greenish-purple kale complements the colors of the dusty red pot.
Fall container with ornamental kale/herebydesign
In this formal urn, I played up the drama using tall grasses as a centerpiece. Then I added different varieties of red and green flowering kale, purple violas and mahogany-toned potato vine to create a warm-toned composition.
Fall container with grasses, flowering kale and potato vine/herebydesign
Since ornamental kale retains its color well into winter, it also pairs beautifully with evergreen branches, pinecones and catkins to form stunning holiday arrangements.
Photo Credit/Canadian Gardening Magazine
In this fall garden, the deep purple Redbor pairs beautifully with salmon chrysanthemums and straw-colored grasses. The maiden grasses’s creamy plumes add a delicate touch.
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.