The Kale Vegetable: Edible and Ornamental

Why keep your flower garden and the vegetable plot separated? The kale vegetable is colorfully decorative and good to eat.

| March/April 1983

kale vegetable - a garden bed mixing kale and bright flowers

Flowering vegetable kale sharing a garden plot with pink geraniums, red verbena, heliotrope, and lavender.

Photo by Kate Rogers Gessert

For some years now I've been experimenting with the use of food plant varieties as decorative additions to my garden. My ideal dual-purpose fruit or vegetable would be attractive in leaf, in flower, and in fruit. It would also be tasty and have a long harvest season. Furthermore, this versatile "dream" variety could be grown in combination with strictly ornamental trees and shrubs or in a largely edible landscape composed primarily of flowers, vegetables, fruits, and nuts.

As you'd imagine, few food plants meet all these criteria. However, there is one that does satisfy a good many of them. The kale vegetable is a hardy and healthful green that can be either an ornamental food plant or a valuable contribution to a nondecorative vegetable garden.

Winter Greens

Kale (Brassica oleracea acephala), a full-leaved member of the cabbage family, is similar to broccoli in growing habit and culinary use. And, since kale is quite winter-hardy, it can withstand temperatures below freezing (some varieties to as low as -10°F!), and, if lightly protected, will continue to thrive during the cold season in many parts of the country.

Dwarf varieties grow in neat compact clusters that can reach 1 1/2 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Their finely curled leaves are usually bluish green in color, and make for tasty garden greens when harvested. In cold climates, the plants often stop growing in late fall and resume in early spring.

Nondwarf varieties have loose, tall growth. Their leaves are less ornate than are those of dwarf kale and tend to be a duller green. Because the plants are tall and lanky, however, with their leaves held well above the soil, they're better protected from intense groundlevel freezes than are the dwarfs.

Planting and Cultivation

Kale grows best in a rich soil that's been well fertilized. The seed can be sown from early spring to late summer, but July or August plantings (for fall and winter harvesting) are especially popular since kale's flavor improves when the leaves are exposed to relatively mild (above 20°F) frosts. (This vegetable can tolerate hot weather, too, but its leaves may become tough.) It likes full sun but will also manage fairly well in partial shade.

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