As the fall fades into the shorter, darker, wetter and cooler days of winter, we’re all looking to add some brighteners to our gardens and containers. We need plants that have some brilliance, toughness, hardiness and blend well with other winter colours. Some of the most overlooked plants are the ornamental kales and cabbages that are used so much around the world but not so much here.
Part of the challenge is heavy winter rains on some of the very full headed varieties planted out in the open. If these same varieties are placed under the eaves of our houses, they will stand up very well. There are, however, varieties that will thrive out in the weather. Fringed varieties, like the ‘Coral’ and ‘Peacock’ series, are ideal because rather than trapping water they allow water to simply flow through. They come in white, pink and deep purple for an exquisite show. I also find that the later planted, smaller headed varieties have rather loose heads and do not hold water. The smaller four inch pots are ideal to mix in with containers and established plantings.
The secret to having them look their best is colour blocking them together in groups. Whites, pinks and purples look so good together and create a brilliant winter display. Complementary companions are winter violas, pansies and dusty miller. Evergreen grasses, such as carex, acorus and fescues, blend beautifully with ornamental kale and cabbage and make great focal points. Flowering kale is also a great accent for evergreen ground covers and looks fabulous as underplantings for trees and winter flowering shrubs like viburnum ‘Pink Dawn’.
Hardiness is often more of an issue out in the eastern Valley where exposure to extreme cold wind chills can cause their demise. Kale will take a good deal of frost, but when we get frost in excess of –10 degrees C. they’ll have some challenges. By using either ‘Remay’ cloth or the far better ‘DeWitt N-sulate’ when we get those severe outflow northeaster winds, you can keep them looking great. If we get a covering of snow before the severe cold, that would be an even better insulator. The newly introduced kales – ‘Red Bor’ (a ruffled deep purple), ‘Winter Bor’ (a green version of ‘Red Bor’) and ‘Laciniato‘ (a green-silver showpiece) – are three shining lights. If they have sun, they can take –25 degrees C. in their stride. All three are magnificent. Classy and elegant, they light up a winter garden. Curiously, they are also edible and delicious when they’ve had a little frost, and for special occasions, they make a great decoration on a plate.
There’s a wide selection of ornamental kale and cabbage now available in the Lower Mainland. As your garden begins to lose its colour, these ornamental and colourful brassicas will add fresh new life. Give them a try – it’s a perfect time for planting them. Remember to bury them deep so they look like flowers popping out of the ground.
Brian Minter is a master gardener who operates Minter Gardens in Chilliwack.