University Department of Horticultural Sciences and Aggie
Cruciferae (Mustard family)
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.
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
line a walkway or fill several containers.
for half the price of a single plant at the nursery, I can
buy one packet of seeds. The trick is to start them
the right time, in the right way, so I’ll have as
many pretty heads of ornamental kale as I need.
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
and then keep taking the outer leaves while they’re
small to use in September salads. As the weather cools,
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.
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
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
The Greeks ate it, the Romans followed suit and took
it on the road with them all over Europe.
trick to growing kale is to make sure it has cool weather
as it matures. But it also needs warmth to germinate.
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
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
have a clear fix on the colors you’re dealing
with so you can place them where the combinations will
One other advantage: not all of them will look like
the ones in the catalog. Some will be irregularly shaped,
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.
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,
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.
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.