Sunday, January 27, 2002

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. -- They may give you a start when you first see them.

Colorful cabbages blooming under lampposts? A little research and you learn ornamental cabbages and kales have been bred to bring garden color to the wintry scene. These frost-resistant, varicolored members of the brassica family appear especially to have caught the fancy of municipal garden planners in big cities.

Walk around New York or Washington in early winter and you'll find street corners and apartment house flower beds flaunting their plots of pink, purple, red and white kales and cabbages. Home gardeners starved for late fall and early winter color can also revitalize their yards with plots of them to take over from their wearying mums.

They come in different heights, frilly or with tightly packed rosettes. They do well in containers. Not everybody likes them. Some people tolerate the colors, but not the shapes.

Add texture and color

Kale, ornamental or otherwise, is also good to eat and high on the nutrition scale. In my own vegetable garden, I like to harvest frilly leaves of green kale rising above the snow. I add them raw to a salad or cook them like collard greens.

Cold enhances the color just as it sharpens the taste of ordinary cabbages. Brussels sprouts are especially good after frost touches them and they keep producing deep into winter. Broccoli, another relative, also picks up flavor with frost.

However, ornamental cabbage does not make for good eating because of its texture. The ornamentals plants were developed through hybridizing by cross-pollination. Many catalogs offer seeds.

The recommended way to grow them is to sow the seed indoors and transplant the plants, when sturdy, to a full-sun area of the garden in late summer. They don't tolerate midsummer heat, but can gradually stand temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Frosts intensify their coloring.

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