During winter, people might eye cabbages and kales for eating, but their relatives, ornamental cabbages and kales, can fill a different kind of hunger -- visual cravings on cold, gray days.
"They're grown strictly for the foliage and the different texture they add for the winter months," says Leonard Ichimoto, retail manager at Belmont Nursery in Fresno, Calif.
So make sure your landscape isn't devoid of color by planting ornamental cabbages and kales. Not only will they thrive in the cold, their showy leaves will become more vivid as the temperatures become cooler.
Sometimes called flowering cabbages and kales, these ornamentals differ from their more edible cousins in foliage color and, sometimes, shape. "The difference is [the cabbage will] open up and have kind of a flower look to it," Ichimoto says. "It doesn't make a head like a vegetable cabbage; it looks like a giant flower."
The center often will have a color to it, such as pink, white, purple or red, while the outer leaves stay green. "The midribs, the main stock of the leaf, that's where the best color is, and then it'll spread to the rest of the foliage," he says.
Ornamental kales have foliage that is more ruffled or serrated. They also can have colors in shades of pink, white, red and purple.
You can eat these colorful cabbages and kales, but they might not be appealing. "Both ornamental cabbage and kale are edible, although they tend to be more bitter than the edible cultivars (and the pretty colors turn an unappetizing gray when cooked)," writes Susan Mahr, master gardener extension program coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in an article for the program's Web site. "Ornamental kale leaves are often used as a garnish on plates in place of parsley."
You can start ornamental cabbages and kales from seed packets, rather than buying the plants, but you have to start growing them in the summer.
Sandy Penner, a Fresno County master gardener in Clovis, Calif., grows many of the seeds that eventually are planted at the Garden of the Sun, a demonstration garden in east-central Fresno. She started several flats of ornamental cabbages and kales in July, but cabbage worms got to them.
Now, she has just one flat left, which has about 36 transplants, she says. In the past, if there were any extras, she'd take them home and put them in pots.
You also can find ornamental cabbages and kales in various sizes at nurseries through November or December.
Prepare the soil as you would for a flower bed, and then start planting. "You can plant where the bottom foliage is flush to the ground," Ichimoto says. Give the plants a liquid fertilizer about every two weeks or granular fertilizer about every three to five weeks. These plants also can be susceptible to aphids, cabbage worms and snails. As the outer leaves yellow, remove them.
The tricky thing with these plants is timing. "If you plant too early in the fall, they'll bolt and go to seed" because of the warmer weather, he says. "It'll get a cluster of small yellow flowers on a stem."
The annual plants also will do this in the spring when the temperature climbs into the 80s, he says. When they do, it's time to take them out.
It's the cooler temperatures they like. If you buy young plants, they show little or no color and will be mainly green. "It's the cold weather," he says. "It's what drives the color. The pink and purple [varieties] may have some color in the midrib. As it gets colder and the plants get more mature, they'll have better color."
A profusion of color
Ornamental cabbages and kales will do well in a number of locations, sunny or shady. If you have a shady spot in which nothing seems to thrive, try these plants, Ichimoto says. "They're fairly tolerant of a wide range of soil."
These plants can stand out in pots. Penner has paired white ornamental kale with red carnations. She remembers seeing ornamental cabbages and kales at nurseries several years ago, and they left a lasting impression.
"I thought, 'Wow! Those are cool,'" says Penner, 61.
They also can be striking in rows, groupings or mass plantings of the same kind. Lee Duncan of Miramonte, Fla., has a row of ornamental kale that she started from seed. The row of kale is planted next to colorful zinnias.
"They're really beautiful," says Duncan, 68.
In Clovis, Calif., retired dentist Al Warkentine enjoys growing them in flower beds.
"I use them as an accent," says Warkentine, 67, who will plant them with other annuals, such as snapdragons and primroses. "It looks very nice."