Crazy cabbages: Ornamental kale makes the fall garden bloom

The ornamental kale will not only keep your garden vibrant during late fall, but also serves as a striking holiday centerpiece.

Late fall is a great time to observe brilliant color in the garden and it may come from a rather unexpected source. One of the best plants for late fall color is a relative of the lowly cabbage, also known as ornamental kale.

Native to the Mediterranean and temperate Asia, the genus Brassica consists of about 30 or so species of mostly annuals we generally would relegate to the garden patch. Among these are several open, leafy rosette-types that offer pure delight in the winter garden.

The most common “cabbage” types are leafy and open, with brightly colored or white centers. One type known as the ‘Tokyo’ series comes in deep maroon, purple and white. Another garden favorite, the ‘Peacock’ series, has leaves that are feathery and loose with loads of ornamental interest.

Peacock Kale
The feathery foliage of Peacock Kale (Red and White) backdropped by Redboor
Kale and Itea ‘Henry’s Garnet’ makes a stunning late-fall splash.

Upright types such as Brassica X hybrida ‘Redbour’ and ‘Red Giant’ (ornamental mustard) offer a stately, almost shrub-like appearance. All of these can be paired with other cold-tolerant garden plants such as parsley, creeping Jenny or colorful pansies.

Ornamental kale is like a fine wine, it gets better with age. The light frosts – yes, even a heavy snowfall – only intensifies the leaf color. Seed-started plants can be obtained in the spring or sometimes more mature specimens can be purchased at local garden centers in late summer. Seeds for all types of kale can be direct-sown in the spring garden.

Green and purple kale
Green and purple kale show off with a light frost.

Because these plants are annuals, they will flower next spring (some would say “bolt”). Flowering would indicate to me a beautiful show of blooms, but the term bolt tells me that it’s time for a trip to the compost heap.

Knock-out holiday centerpieces

When it comes to holiday decorating indoors or out, think past the obvious. The most stunning holiday centerpiece I ever made was based upon a white and purple ‘Tokyo Series’ kale. Tucking these two plants into a deep basket along with a variety of boughs, eucalyptus and silver accents, the combination garnered more compliments that year than any other!                   

Find out about other educational resources and classes at www.migarden.msu.edu and at Finneran’s blog. You can contact the MSU Master Gardener Lawn and Garden Hotline at 888-678-3464 with your questions.

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