Kale is all the rage now. It used to be a regular addition to hearty soups and stews, but these days it appears as salad, as baked or fried “chips,” and even wrappers for other foods. All delicious and definitely nutritious, to be sure. Kales and cabbages (and this includes broccoli, cauliflower, and all of their many varieties) are derived from one or two ancestral strains. The cabbage relatives include the old favorites like red and green cabbage, leafy greens like arugula, kale and collards, as well as broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts. Increasingly well-known are the Asian greens, such as pak choy, bok choy, tat soy, mizuna, and mustard greens.
The edible varieties are all lumps and bumps; awkward globes or tree-like shapes with dense heads, large and small, or tender stalks and leaves. But for years, these lowly kales and cabbages have garnered another claim to fame in the form of some highly ornamental ones that are brightly colored or frilly-leaved or both. These modern kales have been even more highly bred for their exotic good looks. Their leaves spread out in imitation of a rose or camellia flower, sometimes a foot or more across. They may be smooth or crimped, frilled and divided on their edges and their colors are unexpected if not almost garish. From bluish green to palest white, they may also be marbled and edged with a contrasting shade including rose and purple. These are no shrinking violets and command the scene whether you tuck a few into the ground to cover for the spring bulbs that haven’t made a showing yet or plant several in pots to grace the patio. Their colors deepen and their rigid forms hold up well for months. They are just the ticket to fill in for those limp-wristed summer annuals that have long ago given up the ghost.
All of them—edible and ornamental—thrive in the cooler weather of fall and winter. Some of the ornamental ones look even better if they get nipped by a frost. They are all biennials; growing two years before blooming and dying. After the first season, if the cabbage head or broccoli stalk has not already headed to the kitchen, they begin to grow upward; the lower leaves start to look ratty and it is time for the compost heap (or the chickens!). Space the plants according to the directions for their ultimate size provide a good source of nitrogen, since it is the leafy parts that are desired whether they are head cabbages for the dinner table or ornamental varieties to add pop to the winter garden. All are wonderfully suited to containers and even the edible ones can add interest to a planter. Pair them up with some pansies or violas in complimentary colors, even a blue-leaved succulent such as chalk sticks (Senecio mandraliscae), or the mauve foliage of Cordyline ‘Red Star.
Cabbages and kales, ornamental or edible (well, actually, even the ornamental ones are edible), thrive in the coming cool weather. Buy young plants at nurseries and home improvement centers and have nutritious and handsome winter gardens.