University of Illinois Extension

Very Cool Color

The summer growing season has not been kind to gardens, noted a University of Illinois Extension horticulturist, Greg Stack.

"Hot temperatures, dry soils, pots that needed watering two or three times a day and flowers that just did not look their best," said Stack describing the season. " 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 back some color into the garden with some cool color."

While most gardeners think of mums as the flower of choice for fall garden color, there are perhaps some better candidates at the garden center. Not only will these alternatives provide interesting and dependable color, they have the ability to take that color well past fall and into early winter.

"Think foliage. Think cabbage. Think kale," he said. "Ornamental cabbage and kale not only provide bright vibrant color, they like it cool, even very cold."

Ornamental cabbages and kales produce foliage that comes in shades of magenta, purple, red, rose, green and cream color. 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 out," he said. "But the container itself is not that bad looking and just needs a fall 'upgrade.' Think about removing the tired plant material and inserting a few cabbage 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 late summer and early fall. These plants are short, often under 12 inches and about the size of a large dinner plate. While they may be in color when you buy them, just wait until you see what happens when temperatures start to get cool.

"The color on these plants intensifies and becomes so much richer," Stack noted. "And because the color lies in the foliage, they never will be without color as plants like mums that depend on flowers, and once they get done blooming not much is left to look at but a green mound of leaves.

"In addition to color, cabbages and kales offer a variety of leaf sizes and textures. While many will display traditional looking cabbage type foliage, some varieties have fine cut edges and narrow leaves. They almost look like feathers."

Cabbages and kales do well in most any well-drained garden soil in full to part sun. If planted in containers be sure to water well as they are very heavy users of water and will wilt if soils dry out. In addition to all these great qualities, these plants have the capability of providing reliable color and good looks even when temperatures go down into the 20's.

While mums seem to be the "go-to" plant when it comes to fall color, don't discount the power of colorful foliage. Cabbages and kales are unique, and long lasting, and can provide color well into the New Year.

"Put a group of these plants in the garden where something may have been taken out by this summer's heat," he said. "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."