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Succeeding with flowering cabbage and kale - by the Whistling Gardener

This is the time of year when we start selling so called “flowering” cabbage and kale as container plants for the fall and winter. When grown properly they can be very effective as winter interest annuals that will survive most northwest winters just fine.
Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. Photo credit: Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Okay folks, here is a topic that finds gardeners either wildly enthusiastic about or totally repugnant. This is the time of year when we start selling so called “flowering” cabbage and kale as container plants for the fall and winter. When grown properly they can be very effective as winter interest annuals that will survive most northwest winters just fine. Combine them with other hardy perennials like violas, dusty miller, ornamental grasses or trailing vinca and you can have a wowzer of a container for the winter. So why is there such disdain from gardeners for these colorful plants? Here are some thoughts.

First off, cabbage and kale “stink” to some of us. They have that characteristic smell that their edible cousins have as well. It’s not horrid in my book and once the temps cool down you really don’t smell them any more. Second, they are prone to worms and slugs. Those pretty little white moths called cabbage loopers love to lay eggs on the leaves in the fall and those eggs produce little green caterpillars. Usually by October it is too cool to worry about loopers. Slugs can sometimes be a nuisance but a timely application of Sluggo takes care of that problem. In fact, once the weather cools down all of these issues tend to disappear.

Cool weather is also what cabbage and kale like best and it is the cool nights that really bring out the color of the foliage. The problem here is that if you wait to plant until the weather is cool it becomes much more difficult to get them established. You really need to plant them in September with some fresh potting soil and lots of food so they will keep growing and fill out your container. Most gardeners starve them to death and they become the incredible shrinking cabbage and kale which is no fun at all. Plant them early and plant them deep and feed them often at first and you should be successful.

There are many varieties on the market these days and of course I have my favorites. While the cabbages tend to have better color they also tend to rot more easily due to the tight growth habit so I much prefer the more open kale varieties. The Peacock series is a winner with its loose and frilly form and Redbor is a nice purple curly leaved one that makes a great thriller in a pot. Something new this year that comes from the cut flower side of the business is the Crane Series from Ball Horticulture. These are cabbages but they grow tall (up to 3-4 feet tall by then end of winter) with long stems and small heads and when you put 3-4 in a pot they make a wonderful architectural accent.

So, I am not sure if I have won any converts but for those of you that have failed in the past I encourage you to try again with the tips I have provided and see if things turn out better.

Shifting gears a bit, for those of you that are responsible for that sea of emerald green you call a lawn you have an opportunity to join us this Saturday at 10am for a class on fall turf care. CPH Trevor Cameron will educate you on the finer points of growing a beautiful lawn without destroying the environment at the same time!

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at info@sunnysidenursery.net.

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