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How to Grow: Kale
Listen as I talk about new varieties of kale to grow in your garden.
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I never used to be a big kale (Brassica oleracea) fan, but that has changed. I woke up to kale when I started seeing some interesting looking varieties and started eating it in fall after the cool weather set in. That’s the key with kale. Eat mature leaves in the summer, and it’s like chewing cardboard. Eat kale in spring or fall, and it has a crisp texture and sweet flavor. Now, it’s one of the my favorite “plant it and forget about it” crops. I let it grow to full size (sometimes 5 feet tall!) all summer, but don’t touch it to eat until fall. It’s worth the wait. I have my kale trees into winter providing great fresh greens during the dark, cold months.
Kale is also one of the most nutrition crops you can grow. It’s loaded with vitamins A, C, potassium, iron, and calcium. I love kale in soups, stir fries, steamed or even eating baby kale leaves in salads. It’s often found in mesclun and lettuce mixes to add a deep green color and crunchy texture.
When to Plant
While kale is a cool weather loving crop, it can grow all summer. The key is sowing seeds when the ground is cool and harvesting either young greens or mature plants in spring or fall. Plant as soon as the ground can be worked, usually April, 4 weeks before your last frost date. You can also plant a fall crop in August or September, 6 weeks before the first frost date, to enjoy in autumn.
Where to Plant
Kale is one green that doesn’t need lots of sun to thrive. If it gets 2 to 3 hours of direct sun a day, it will grow fine. The more sun, the bigger and fuller the plant. Like all greens, it grows best in fertile, well-drained soil.
How to Plant
Amend the soil before planting with compost, plant on raised beds if you have heavy clay soil, and sow seeds 1 inch apart in rows spaced 2 feet apart. Cover the small seeds with 1/2 inch of fine soil or potting soil. Thin young seedlings to 6 inches apart when they’re 4 inches tall. Use the kale thinnings in salads.
Care and Maintenance
Kale loves nitrogen fertilizer. Give new seedlings a dose of fish emulsion or soybean meal when they are 4 inches tall. Keep the kale bed well weeded and watered. Consider mulching with an organic mulch, such as straw or untreated grass clippings, once plants are established.
Kale has some of the same pest problems as other cabbage-family crops. Control aphids on the leaves with sprays of insecticidal soap. Look for adult cabbageworm white butterflies in early summer. The butterflies lay eggs on kale leaves that hatch into green caterpillars who eat holes in the leaves. Control this caterpillar with sprays of Bacillus thuriengensis (Bt).
Harvest baby kale plants 20 days after seeding for use as greens in salads. Wait until 60 to 70 days after seeding for the plants to mature to full size for larger leaves. In fall, pick the outer leaves first, allowing the inner leaves to continue to develop. In this way, your kale plant will keep producing until the cold eventually kills it. Since it can withstand temperatures in the low 20Fs, you may still be eating kale into December.
‘Toscano’ or dinosaur kale is one of my favorite varieties. The long, thin, puckered, blue-green leaves are beautiful to look at. This Italian variety stays crunchy even when cooked, making it great in soups and stews. ‘Red Bor’ features curly, burgundy colored stems and leaves that turn a deeper purple in fall. ‘Red Russian’ has flat green leaves with red veins. It’s more tender textured and is good chopped in salads. ‘Ripbor’ has frilly green leaves on a compact plant.
Excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.
Kale is a killer vegetable. Before you turn up your nose, just consider the facts. Ounce for ounce kale has more iron than beef and calcium than milk. It a super food, loaded with antioxidants that put other leafy greens like spinach and lettuce to shame. And it’s beautiful. There are burgundy red varieties, dark blue varieties and a new yellow and green variegated type.
But life wasn’t always so glamorous for kale. Relegated as an after thought at salad bars and a garnish for years, kale was considered the poor man’s cabbage and rarely eaten. But with new varieties and uses, such as kale chips, kale is now a star in the vegetable garden.
To grow kale let’s start with the basics. Kale loves cool weather and rich, moist soil so sow seeds or plant seedlings now in compost amended beds. Spray neem oil to protect seedlings from flea beetles who’s feeding creates shotgun-like holes in the leaves. Get adventurous with your varieties. Many already know of lacinata or dinosaur kale with its puckery, blue-green leaves. Try ‘Red Bor’ for its burgundy colored leaves and stems. And there’s a new Dutch variety called ‘Kosmic Kale’ with variegated green and yellow leaves. It’s hardy to 10F so will last well into fall.
I plant kale now and leave it until fall when the kale bed looks like a mini forest of 3 to 4 foot tall kale trees. After a frost the flavor sweetens and texture gets tender making for great eating. To make kale chips massage chopped, dry, kale leaves in olive oil, add salt and pepper and place them, not touching, on a cookie sheet, in a 350 degree oven. After 5 to 10 minutes you’ll have crispy chips and your kids will love you forever!