We mostly grow vegetables to eat, but did you know you can grow certain vegetables for their looks?
Ornamental vegetables provide color to containers and landscape. In the northern United States, we really can't grow flowers in winter because of the freezing temperatures. Some vegetables can tolerate the cold well,and growers have developed beautiful varieties to be enjoyed in fall and winter.
Let's look at some common winter ornamental vegetables.
Many cabbages are attractive plants. Look for varieties with interesting color, such as Red Jewel. It produces purple shaded cabbage heads with purply green outer leaves.
Look for interesting texture or shape, also. Consider Napa style cabbage that stands upright and has a crinkly texture. Some varieties produce a conical head, for visual interest. Check out Baker's Heirloom Seeds' cabbage collection for some unique varieties.
Cabbage relatives like bok choy and kohlrabi can also look attractive in a winter garden or planter.
Many ornamental "cabbages" are actually varieties of kale. Those that have been bred to grow in a rosette shape are usually labeled as ornamental cabbage. Since kale is closely related to cabbage, the marketing isn't far off base. These varieties are sometimes called flowering kale.
The varieties that have been bred to grow in rosettes are those most commonly marketed as ornamental cabbage. They tend to have a colored center and darker outer leaves, and they have the look of roses or certain kinds of succulents.
Other pretty varieties of garden kale are also grown as ornamentals for winter. Red Russian kale has reddish purple leaves with frilly edges, and it makes a nice addition to cool season planters. Lacinato kale (image above, right side) can be grown as an ornamental because of its interesting texture, eye-catching spear shaped leaves, and deep blue-green color.
Ornamental kale is absolutely edible, just like garden kale. The rosette varieties have been developed for looks, not taste and texture, and as you might expect, the leaves tend to be thicker and sturdier.
Don't forget hardy and beautiful Swiss chard! It comes in many different colors, and some of them are bright indeed! The stems and the veins in the leaves tend to have the most color, and you can find varieties in yellow, orange, pale pink, bright pink, white, and red. The upright growth habit provides visual interest.
The textured leaves are also pretty, coming in shades of green and red. The leaves can become massive!
Ornamental Swiss chard is not a distinct variety; it is the same as the varieties you grow in the garden: Bright Lights (mixed bright colors), Fordhook Giant (white), Rhubarb Red, Oriole (orange), and Peppermint (light pink). Just snip off a few leaves and take them to the kitchen for your recipes.
When it is late in the season and you want to create a pretty fall or winter planter, it is easier and faster to start with a transplant. You can start from seeds outside, and you can even start your seeds indoors on your own, but mature ornamentals are most attractive. Seeds will germinate and grow much more slowly in cold temperatures, meaning you'll have to wait for the beautiful leaves and stems to grow. Better nurseries and garden centers offer ornamental vegetable transplants in the fall.
If you are in an area where you can also grow pansies and violas in the winter, use them with an ornamental vegetable to create a unique colorful look.