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Growing Kale: The King of Winter Vegetables

Kale Plant Growing

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Of all the cruciferous vegetables, a group that includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts, growing kale is one of the easiest. It can be started with seeds in the ground, can handle a few nights of frost, is less prone to pests and diseases and will keep growing and producing throughout the season.

A Few Facts About Kale

Good For You

So first, let’s talk about how good kale is for you. To be honest, all the cruciferous vegetables are good for you healthwise, but if you don’t like the sulphur smells of some of the other cruciferous vegetables, you might be pleased to know that kale is different. It’s probably more like spinach in that regard.

Kale is one more vegetable that’s called a superfood because it’s packed with nutrients. It contains among others: vitamins C and K, fiber, beta-carotene and even calcium. And, because kale can be cooked quickly with just a little olive oil, most of these nutrients are retained when eaten: a big plus. For more information on the health benefits of kale, click here.

Delicious to Eat

Since kale is a leafy vegetable, it’s equally at home raw in a salad as well as cooked. For a salad, think of thinly chopped kale with chopped apple, nuts, cranberries and goat cheese tossed with a tasty dressing. Maybe toss in some grated carrots and sunflower seeds for sweetness and more crunch. For a really quick side vegetable, wash and tear the leaves, put in a saucepan with some olive oil and cook quickly for 5 to 10 minutes (no need to dry the leaves). Make sure you pack the saucepan as it will cook down quite dramatically.

Kale salad with pineapple and blueberries

Varieties of Kale

Kale leaves vary from curly to crinkly to flat and they come in red and purple varieties in addition to the more common green color.

  • Siberian kale has curly blue-green leaves and a mildly sweet flavor. The plants grow tall and strong but are not as cold hardy as some other varieties. Excellent in salads and stir fries.
  • Lacinato kale also known as Tuscan kale has bluish dark green leaves and a mild, earthy flavor. Eat raw in salads, braised or wilted in soup.
  • Red Russian kale has beautiful purple stems and green leaves. They grow to medium tall size. This variety is tender compared to other kales. Eat in salads and stir fries.
  • Winterbor kale has curly leaves. It can grow up to 2 feet and has excellent yield and cold hardiness. With a deep rich flavor, it’s best to harvest the leaves young, since they are more tender.
  • Curly kale has curly green leaves and is one of the varieties you’re most likely to see in a grocery store. It has a peppery and slightly bitter taste. Since it’s a bit tougher than other kales, it’s probably not the best kale for salads. However, you can make some great kale chips with this variety.

Red Russian

Growing Kale

Planting

You can plant your kale seeds in the spring 4 to 6 weeks before the average last frost or in the fall 4 to 6 weeks before the average first frost. Kale does best with 6 to 8 hours of sunshine a day although it can handle some partial shade. You can plant them directly into the ground outside, or if you prefer you can start them indoors.

Planting Kale Seeds In-Ground

Sow in rows in loose well-drained soil. Add some organic compost before planting. To discourage disease, the pH of the soil should be between 6.0 and 7.0. You can use an inexpensive soil test kit to easily check this.

Make even rows spaced 18” apart and sow seeds ¼ to ½ inch deep. Cover with ¼ inch of loose soil and water well. Add mulch to keep weeds away and to keep the soil moist and cool. Once the seedlings have emerged, thin them to 18 inches apart or 10 inches apart if you’ll be harvesting early for salad leaves.

As mentioned earlier, kale can survive a few nights of frost, but it may stop growing during this time, so have a frost blanket or floating row covers on hand in case there’s an unexpected frost.

Growing Kale Seeds Indoors

To get a jump start on both seasons you can sow kale seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost and 6-8 weeks before the first winter frost. Sow in seedling trays (also called plugs) with a multi-purpose potting soil. Sow 2 seeds per plug, cover thinly with soil and water thoroughly. If two seedlings grow, remove the weaker of the two. Depending on when you plan to plant outdoors, you may need to replant the seedlings into small pots as they grow.

Red Russian Seedlings

Moving Your Seedlings Outside

This has to be done carefully as the young indoor plants need to be hardened to gradually introduce them to outdoors. First, put them outside for a few hours in full shade working up to leaving them overnight and in full sun. This process takes about a week. To plant them, dig a hole about 2 x the size of the root ball, place the root ball even with soil level and fill the hole. Firm down, then water thoroughly.

If you use biodegradable seedling pots, they can be planted directly into the ground without removing the seedlings. You an make your own biodegradable plugs by cutting up paper towel rolls or cutting the top off egg shells, both of which will decompose over time.

Ongoing Care

Kale requires constant moisture since its roots are shallow, so keep your kale plants well-watered. Weed regularly and remove yellowing or damaged leaves as they appear.

As for fertilizer, you may not need to add any more if you amended your soil before planting. If not, your plants will benefit from an addition of fertilizer after the first leaves have been harvested to encourage them to keep producing throughout the season.

Pests and Diseases

Pests are not such a problem as with other vegetables. However, some pests to watch out for are:

  • Slugs in wetter climates; you can remove these by hand.
  • If butterflies and caterpillars are a problem, use butterfly netting on your plants.
  • If you see whitefly or aphids, use a natural pesticide such as a neem oil spray that is already diluted. Or make your own spray with 1 tablespoon of neem oil, 1 tablespoon of castile soap and 2 gallons of water. Make sure to spray the underside of the leaves and the bottom of each leaf.

Diseases such as black rot can be avoided by keeping water off the leaves when watering. Also, try to keep any soil off the leaves.

Purple Kale

Harvesting

After your kale has been growing for about 2 months, when the plants are 10-12” high, you can start harvesting the leaves. Cut or twist off the bottom leaves, always leaving the central rosette intact. Take just a few leaves from each plant to encourage more leaves to grow. Your plants will grow quite tall towards the end of the season and then they can go on the compost heap. Alternatively, you can let them go to flower to attract pollinators such as butterflies and bees.

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How to grow kale

Final Thoughts

If you’re thinking about growing kale, now might be a good time to get started. It’s one of the vegetables that thrives in cold weather and tastes even better when harvested after a frost. And, by planting in the fall, you won’t have to worry about it bolting in hotter weather.

Amy Martens

Amy Martens

My interest in growing my own food stems from many sources: enjoyment of gardening, concern about chemicals and pesticides, and the desire to eat fresher, healthier fruits and vegetables. I believe the more we do this, the healthier we’ll all be, while helping our planet at the same time.

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