Cold Weather Kale and Cabbage

Cabbage and kale are popular cool-weather vegetables known for their many health benefits, but did you know these lovely leafy greens come in ornamental varieties, too?

Ornamental cabbages and kales have showy, colorful foliage and are typically grown as annuals in fall container plantings or massed for a late-season bedding display. The leaves come in a wide variety of colors including red, purple, and white. The colors tend to deepen and grow more prominent as temperatures get cooler. These versatile annuals can survive freezing temperatures and may last well into winter if grown in a protected area.

More to know before you grow

How did these plants come to be, and how do they differ from the cabbage and kale we eat?

Cabbage and kale both belong to the species Brassica oleracea, which also includes other vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower. There are no taxonomic differences between any of these plants, but they have been bred over hundreds of years to have very different physical characteristics. Like their culinary counterparts, ornamental cabbages and kales are edible, but they are more bitter than cultivars grown for eating.

Ornamental cabbages and kales originated in Japan. Edible varieties were introduced there by the Dutch in the 17th century, and by the 1800s, Japanese breeders were selecting plants with colorful foliage for displaying rather than eating. These plants were introduced to American growers in 1929 and were marketed as “flowering kale,” although the colorful leaves are not part of the flowering structure. Today they are becoming ever more popular additions to fall containers and late-season displays.

Growing in your garden

If you’re looking to add some colorful cabbage or kale to your garden, the Kemper Center for Home Gardening offers the following tips on growing these ornamental plants.

Where to grow: These ornamental plants prefer full soon. They’re easily grown in rich, consistently moist-well drained soil. Plants grow well in containers.

When to grow: Cool temperatures produce the best leaf color in these cool weather plants. In St. Louis, fall is the best time to grow cabbage and kale, but they can be grown in early spring. The plants do poorly when temperatures reach about 80 degrees.

How to grow: Cultivars may often be grown from seed or plants may be purchased in cell packs from nurseries.

When to plant: For fall display, start seeds indoors around July 1. Seedlings may be planted outdoors around mid-August. 

Cold weather care: These plants may survive past Thanksgiving and into December. In a mild winter, plants can survive until they bolt in the spring. Prompt remove any flower stems that may appear.

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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