How to Grow and Care for Ornamental Kale and Cabbage

updated Nov 19, 2019
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The arrival of fall means the landscape is quickly turning into a barren tundra and the evening temperatures have turned from chilly to just plain cold. But that doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to looking at bare twigs until springtime! There are plenty of plants that can hold up in crisp fall weather. During trips to your local nursery you’ll begin seeing cool- and cold-weather annuals like ornamental kale, which is a popular option for color during the colder months. But what exactly is it and how do you care for it?

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Ornamental kale and cabbage 101

Both ornamental kale and cabbage fall under the Brassica oleracea botanical name. They look very similar to the kales and cabbages that grace our salad bars, but were cultivated for vanity instead of taste buds. You’ll also find them being called flowering kale and cabbage. The coloring of these plants usually falls within purple, pink and green palettes, but there are a few varieties that are yellow and white in the centers. 

Ornamental cabbage has smooth, wide leaves and will form a head like a typical culinary cabbage while ornamental kale has frilly leaves and is more of a foliage plant. You will find that these names are all interchangeable and that they are frequently mislabeled at most nurseries. Sometimes you will find them separated into “fringe leaf” and “feather leaf” at some shops. 

These plants love cool weather and actually do best when temperatures fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit as a high. The cooler the temperature, the more vibrant the “flowers,” or leaves become. Ornamental kale will keep gorgeous color until the temperatures dip below 20 degrees Fahrenheit on a regular basis. 

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Where to plant ornamental kale or cabbage

Ornamental kale is a great landscape plant as well as a container plant. Whether you’re using it in a garden bed or in container gardening, it’s a great complement to other fall plants like chrysanthemums, ornamental peppers, and violas. One of my favorite ways to utilize ornamental kale in designs is to plant it in clusters of threes. 

Another great way to use it in your garden is to plant it in your window boxes as a focal point alongside smaller seasonal plants like pansies and sedums. These plants typically do not grow quickly so they can be planted with tighter spacing.

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How to care for ornamental kale and cabbage

Ornamental kale is one of the easiest cool-weather plants to care for. When you plant it, make sure the root ball is loosened and that you sink the plant into the soil until the bottoms of the leaves are flush with the ground or the container lip. Make sure you water the plant thoroughly afterwards.  

For maintenance, let it dry out before watering again but do not prolong the drought period. They can maintain their beauty in full sun or part sun. They do not like hot weather, so be sure to plant them only when the temperatures are consistently cool, as stated above. 

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Where to buy ornamental kale and cabbage

It is unlikely that you’ll be able to find a source online for mature ornamental kale plants, but any nursery will have them at this time of year, from big box stores to your favorite mom-and-pop shop.

If you’re looking for unique cultivars to grow from seed, your best bet is an online specialty grower. Most seed packets you get at nurseries will be labeled “Ornamental Cabbage” or Ornamental Kale” with the specific variety listed. We like the colorful varieties at Harris Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.