Ornamental cabbages are members of the family Brassicaceae, a family known for it’s many culinary members including kale, broccoli, cabbage, mustard, caulflower, brussels sprouts, rutabaga, kohl rabi, turnip, canola, collard greens, radish and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few more. Ornamental cabbages are cultivars of the same species as vegetable cabbage, but they have bred for their attractive, colourful leaves which grow in a rosette and form a small, loose head in some varieties. Ornamental cabbages and ornamental kales are very similar plants and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, although ornamental cabbages tend to have less dense leaves and don’t form as tight a head. There are cultivars of ornamental cabbage available with frilly or straight leaves. The leaves often have a green margin with a combination of purple, red and/or white around the veins, or alternatively the outer leaves can be entirely green while the inner leaves will be entirely colored.
Using Ornamental Cabbages In The Garden
Ornamental cabbages really shine when used as a structural element in the garden. Planting them in uniform grids or rows tends to provide a nice contrast to their varied, fractal-like, ruffled foliage and intricate, colorful patterning. Planting several different varieties in alternating rows or in a pattern can really bring a patch of ornamental cabbages into focus, turning them into a feature in the garden that will just as likely attract a visitors eye as a large patch of annual flowers would.
However the more practical minded gardener may think of all of this ‘what’s the point of growing an ornamental cabbages when I could just grow a nice patch of regular vegetable cabbages?’. Well the answer to this is that ornamental cabbages actually provide both ornamental and practical value as they are both attractive and also edible. Unfortunately the downside is that most ornamental cabbage varieties aren’t as productive as their cousins which have been bred for eating and worse still, are not quite as tasty. However they can be effectively used to spruce up dull spots and add interest to community gardens which may otherwise look a little drab when not full of ripe, colourful heirloom tomatoes, multi-colored chards and a medley of different colored bell peppers and chilli fruits.
Growing Ornamental Cabbages
Ornamental cabbages like regular cabbages are cool weather plants and should be sown in late Fall and grown from early Winter to early Spring. Gardeners in locations which experience really cold Winters and mild Summers should start ornamental cabbages early indoors in seedling punnets and plant out once the ground has thawed in early Spring. Do not allow the seedling to grow to long in their punnets or they’ll become root bound. Cabbages are notorious for ceasing growth once they become root bound so it’s a good idea when buying ornamental cabbages to select plants in larger pots which are already a good size as it will not matter if these are already slightly root bound, although they will cost a premium over small seedling punnets. Ornamental cabbages take between 11 and 13 weeks from sowing the seed to maturity.
When planting ornamental cabbages, select a site that has rich, fertile, well-drained soil in a full sun position. Dig some garden compost or well rotted animal manure through the soil prior to planting if it’s lacking in nutrition. If you live in an area with heavy, compact, clay soils you may have better success growing ornamental cabbage in pots. Use a good quality potting mix and a large container, arranging several plants in an aesthetically pleasing formation for best effect. Let the plants dry out between watering but do not allow them to stay dry for too long. Frosts tend to improve the coloration of the leaves. Ornamental cabbages, like their vegetable cousins, can be susceptible to looper caterpillars and these should be removed as they are spotted (be on the lookout for signs of leaf damage). If looper caterpillars constantly attack your plants you may be growing them too early, their numbers will generally be far fewer when growing during Winter than during Fall.
As the weather begins you warm in late Spring you may find that your cabbages begin to bolt to seed, while fussy gardeners will tend to pull them up and compost them once they bolt you should really hold off. The large bunches of yellow, 4-petalled flowers can be attractive in their own right and provide a nice color contrast to the purple foliaged varieties. The pairing of colors from opposite sides of the color wheel (such as yellow and purple) is known as complimentary color pairing. Professional landscape designers often use complimentary colours to give a garden a vibrant look. Additionally, the adult stages of many beneficial insects such as pollinating bees, and predatory hoverflies and lacewings are attracted to the nectar of cabbage flowers which provides them with a vital source of energy. In the heat of Summer cabbage plants will start to cook in the sun and a patch will start to smell distinctively of cooked cabbage, this is the perfect time to pull and compost them after collecting the seed to sow next year.