Texas A&M University Department of Horticultural Sciences and Aggie Horticulture


Family: Cruciferae (Mustard family)
Genus: Brassica
Species: oleracea

This month’s article is as much a reminder for me as anything else, to start some kale from seed in flats about now. I love the look of our gardens this time of year—exuberant, more than slightly overgrown, and very colorful. In the vegetable plot as well as the flowerbeds, everything tumbles together: blossoms, fruit, and seedheads, twining vines and leafed-out branches. As the summer progresses, however, it will be time to start taking things out, whether nasturtiums or petunias, and there will be holes here and there. While I won’t be able to recapture summer’s exuberance as we move into fall, I can be prepared with some fresh stock to cover patches of bare earth.

For years I dismissed ornamental kale as too garish. There was something almost artificial about that combination of pink, purple, and teal that didn’t sit right with me. But tastes change. New varieties become available. And a couple of years ago I found myself coveting some “flowering” kale with either pure red or clear white centers clustered within outer leaves of true, deep green. The only trouble? They were pretty pricey, particularly if I wanted a number of them to line a walkway or fill several containers.

But for half the price of a single plant at the nursery, I can buy one packet of seeds. The trick is to start them at the right time, in the right way, so I’ll have as many pretty heads of ornamental kale as I need.

Now is the time—don’t wait past early August—and flats are the way to go. I sow leafy kale—the kind I plan to eat—directly into the ground, in the place set aside for vegetables. Unlike chard, it doesn’t suit me to mix it in with my ornamentals. I like to harvest the thinnings and then keep taking the outer leaves while they’re small to use in September salads. As the weather cools, the plants grow bigger and their leaves become both tougher and sweeter, making them perfect for pot greens by November. So the kale I plant to eat really needs a place of its own.

But the kale I plan to admire is treated a little differently. By sowing seeds in flats now, I’ll have starts to transplant into small pots in a month. And by the first of October, if I tend them properly, I’ll have a number of pretty little heads of ornamental kale to put along the walkway or in containers by the front door. I might choose ‘Sunset’ or ‘Sunrise’—can you guess how these differ in color?—or the particularly attractive Nagoya mix for pure white and pure red. The plant breeders have been busy with kale during the last two decades, taking the most ancient of the Cruciferae to new aesthetic heights for our modern sensibilities. What we call kale is the forerunner of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and most cabbages. The Greeks ate it, the Romans followed suit and took it on the road with them all over Europe.

The trick to growing kale is to make sure it has cool weather as it matures. But it also needs warmth to germinate. So for our region, it’s the perfect fall crop—particularly the ornamental varieties. Starting seeds in flats, outdoors, now avoids many of the problems associated with starting seeds indoors in late winter and early spring. Better air circulation, and fresh air in general, means less chance of damping-off. The starts are likely to be sturdy and healthy. By transplanting them into small pots and keeping them well-watered and lightly fed, you’ll be able to choose the best-looking heads as ornamental features. And if you use a seed mix, you’ll have a clear fix on the colors you’re dealing with so you can place them where the combinations will please you. One other advantage: not all of them will look like the ones in the catalog. Some will be irregularly shaped, some will look lumpy. You’ll be able to select the best of the lot. Plant them in the ground up to their first set of leaves, and you’ll keep them from growing lanky and flopping over. The cool fall weather will bring out their color, once they’re safely tucked in the ground.

And yes, you can eat any ornamental kale that doesn’t make the cut. It’s not as tasty or tender as the culinary varieties—it’s bred for looks, remember—but it’s still nutritious and pleasant to eat when you toss a handful of leaves cut into strips into soup, for example, during the last few minutes of cooking time.

So, if you start some ornamental kale right away, no later than mid-August, you’ll have the opportunity this year to have your kale and eat it, too.