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Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012 07:43 am

Cool color from cabbages and kales

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The summer growing season has not been kind to gardens, noted a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“Hot temperatures, dry soils, pots that needed watering two or three times a day, and flowers that just did not look their best,” said Greg Stack. “Would you look your best if you had to put up with the wilting heat of 2012? Well, maybe there is time to recover and get some cool color into the garden.”

While most gardeners think of mums as the flower of choice for fall garden color, there might be better candidates at the garden center. Not only will these alternatives provide interesting and dependable color, they stay colorful well past fall and into early winter.

“Think foliage. Think cabbage. Think kale,” Stack said. “Ornamental cabbage and kale not only provide bright vibrant color, they like cool, even very cold, weather.”

Ornamental cabbages and kales produce foliage that comes in shades of magenta, purple, red, rose, green and cream. They are great accent plants for the garden and also work well in containers by themselves or mixed with other plants.

“Summer containers often have plants that have lost their appeal or died, but the container itself is not bad looking and just needs a fall upgrade,” he said. “Think about removing the tired plant material and inserting a few cabbages or kale. What you have is instant revival and a container that is good to go the distance.”

Cabbage and kale will start to show up in garden centers in very late summer and early fall. These plants are short, often under 12 inches, about the size of a very large dinner plate. While they may be in color when purchased, watch what happens when temperatures start to cool.

“The color on these plants intensifies and becomes so much richer,” Stack explained. “Because the color lies in the foliage, they never will be without color. Plants such as mums depend on flowers, and once they get done blooming there is not much left to look at but a green mound of leaves.”

Cabbages and kales offer a variety of leaf sizes and textures. While many will display traditional cabbage-type foliage, some varieties have very fine cut edges and narrow leaves that almost look like feathers.

Cabbages and kales do well in nearly any well-drained garden soil in full to part sun. If planted in containers, be sure to water them well. They need a lot of water and will wilt if the soil dries out.

These plants continue to provide reliable color and good looks when temperatures go down into the 20s, even well into the New Year.

“Put a group of them in the garden where something may have been killed by the heat,” Hentschel suggested. “Put a few in pots around the patio or porch for some welcoming color. When it comes to a plant that will give you your money’s worth, the cabbages and kales are hard to beat.” 

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