I have to confess … despite all the hype over kale, I didn’t really think it was a superfood until I started growing kale in my own garden. The stuff at the grocery store just kind of tasted like old collards. Even bacon grease and balsamic glaze couldn’t turn curly kale into something I would eat voluntarily.
Then, a couple years ago, I bought a collection of seeds that were supposed to grow well in early spring. Vates Blue Kale seeds were in the mix. Even though I doubted I’d eat them, I was curious to see how they would do in our garden and figured I could feed the leaves to the chickens, if nothing else.
When those first tender baby greens sprouted from the start of my kale stalk, I tore one off and tasted it. Fireworks exploded and TGN blogger Scott Sexton began singing songs that sounded somewhat reminiscent of fairy tale cartoon movies from my childhood.
(By the way, if you haven’t already heard Scott’s song—you must! Seriously, it will make your day: “Gardening Humor: Need a Laugh? Watch This Now!”)
The Goods on Growing Kale
Kale is the ultimate superfood. You want vitamins A, C, and K—it’s got plenty. And those thingamabobs—oh yeah, antioxidants—it’s got twenty (at least). If you want to be where the calcium, iron, manganese, and fiber are—plant some kale and have some for salads. (Yes, this is a play on Scott’s song. So, if you haven’t already listened to it, please check it out so I don’t sound like a total idiot!)
Seriously though, kale is loaded with nutrients and light on calories. It’s even got OMEGAs![note][/note]
Well, not so delicious if you get it at the grocery store. But, if you grow it at home, it’s a whole new world! Cooked in bacon grease or butter, raw, juiced, smoothied (that’s a verb, isn’t it?), rubbed with vinegar and tossed with olive oil, made into kale chips, chopped up, fermented, and used a relish … this green’s got it all. And it’s …
Easy to Grow
Yes!! Growing kale is easy. In fact, in temperate climates it can even grow through winter and into the next spring. Of course, like most cole crops, it grows best in cooler weather. But used in an edible landscape with a bit of heat and sun protection, it can keep producing even in warmer weather.
Edible Landscape Favorite
I love to grow greens under my fruit trees to increase my food production and add seasonal, edible interest. Kale is one of the most beautiful and longest-lasting seasonal greens I grow decoratively. Those giant Lacinato dinosaur leaves hearken back to prehistoric times. The stunning Red Russian fan-like displays call to mind Caribbean coral reefs and add flare and flavor to your edible landscape areas. And the pale, blue-green Vates leaves add amazing contrast and interest.
If you can manage not to eat all your baby kale straight from the garden, then taking those larger leaves and coating them with olive oil, salt, and some red pepper flakes and toasting them on a sheet pan in your oven is a real treat.
We call these kale chips. But with half the calories and 10 million times the goodness of potato chips, you don’t even have to feel guilty eating these. If red pepper flakes aren’t your thing, add your favorite herb or a handful of Parmesan instead.
I’d give you a formal recipe, but kale chips are so easy that all you need to know (besides what I just told you) is to cook them on about 350°F or 177°C for about 10-15 minutes until the edges just start to brown and curl.
Some people remove the stems before baking. Personally, I find this to be too much work. I leave them in, and if they aren’t tender enough to eat, I just nibble the leaf parts and take the leftover stems to my chickens.
Kale chips taste best when leaves are mid-sized. I’d keep the baby leaves for salad and the jumbo leaves for soups.
A Few Cautionary Things to Know About Growing Kale
Now, there are also a couple of things to be aware of before you make kale part of your garden and your diet.
It’s a Cole Crop
Yes, another cole crop, like mustard and arugula—our two most recent greens of the month. In case you missed those greens, you can check them out here.
However, since you can absolutely grow kale with your mustard and arugula and create waves of delicious color and interest in your garden bed, this doesn’t need to be a downside.
Just remember to only plant cole crops in the same beds once every 3-4 years to minimize pests like cabbage moths and cabbage aphids.
A single serving of kale has almost 700% of your daily dose of vitamin K. This isn’t an issue for everyone. But it can be a serious concern for people on blood thinners. Kale also packs a fiber wallop, so you might want to add it to your diet slowly and give your gut time to adjust.
Kale can tolerate a wider variety of soils than most other cole crops, which is why it works great in edible landscapes as well as in prepared vegetable garden beds. As long as your soil is the 6.0–7.5 pH range, kale will grow well with a little prep work.
Here’s the big secret to growing kale at home. Ready?
Kale absolutely loves compost.
I mean, loves it! I usually apply at least 3-4 inches of well-aged compost to my kale beds before planting. I also top dress with a sprinkling of worm castings across the entire bed for some bonus fertility. If we get runs of hot weather in spring, I’ll even top dress with another inch or two of compost to keep kale from becoming woody and bitter.
Compost is so important because kale is a nutrient hog. And in good soil, it will set a deep, central tap root, as well as lots of smaller side roots that can sometimes run out and down over several feet in their quest for nutrients. Heavy compost keeps the soil moist so that these nutrient-seeking roots can dig deep to get what they need.
If your soil is mineral light, then you also want to amend with some rock dust.
Kale seeds can germinate in temperatures ranging from 40-80°F or 5-26°C, which is pretty astonishing for a crop that prefers to grow in cool weather. This makes it a great option for both early spring and late summer planting so that you can eat it for the better part of the year.
You can also start seeds indoors and transplant into the garden. However, in my experience, it’s better to transplant when the plants are only about an inch or so tall. Larger plants tend to get stunted after transplanting and take longer to mature than smaller transplants. Though, if you are super careful not to damage the roots, you can get away with transplanting larger plants, too.
Direct-seeding is my favorite method, though. With daily to twice daily watering (to keep the top layer of soil moist), you can get in-ground germination in 4 days.
A healthy kale plant can grow pretty vigorously. Space plants a foot apart for dwarf varieties and more like 14-16 inches apart for larger varieties.
Young Plant Care
Since kale can often be direct-planted weeks before your last frost, if the weather takes a turn for the worse while the plants are still young, you can protect them with cloches. Fancy cloches are made of glass, look like bells, and come equipped with knobs for easy carrying. But you can make your own with plastic bottles by cutting the bottom off.
For best yields and the sweetest-tasting kale, make sure to keep the soil consistently moist. If we don’t get rain, I’ll water the top few inches of soil every other day as necessary.
Some people start kale every few weeks to keep a good supply. I usually start an early round (like now), then one about a month from now. I eat baby leaves from my early round until my second round matures. Then I let my older plants get larger leaves to use for kale chips, soups, and sautéed greens.
Mature Plant Care and Harvesting
The key to mature plant care for kale is to harvest regularly. Harvest leaves from the base toward the top. Leave the top intact since that’s where new growth will come from. Yes, this means your kale will end up looking like a palm tree. But palm trees are beautiful.
If my kale starts to tower too tall in my garden, I will chop off its head at about 4-5 inches from the ground. So long as the stalk is still in great condition (e.g., not already on the way out), I’ll get some side shoots and more production.
This is a gamble, though, because those cut stalks often start to rot and the plants seem more prone to insect infestation. Still, I have actually kept several plants alive for over three years by doing this. However, new plants are more productive, taste better, and take less work.
Kale is also more susceptible to aphid infestations as weather warms. So be ready to scrub your leaves with soapy water at the first signs of aphid invasions.
Varieties of Kale
Hands down, the easiest kinds of kale to grow in my area (zone 7a—hot early springs, hot fall, late winter) are Vates and Red Russian kale. Lacinato is also pretty easy, but in our heat and humidity, it doesn’t seem to hold up as long as I imagine it would in more Northern climates. Siberian kales tend to bolt in our hot, humid conditions. However, there are lots more kale varieties than these.
Cornell University has a page you can link to that has a long list of cultivated kales:
Read More: Cornell Kale Varieties List
Unconventional Growing Tips for Adventure Gardeners
Have you heard of perennial kale that will even grow well in sand? Yes, I am serious. It’s called Lily White Kale or Sea Kale.
The seeds are a bit tricky to germinate. You need to remove the outer corky layer and then nurture your seeds in the ground for 21 days or longer. You may also need to give them a bit of shade protection if you are trying to direct-start outdoors.
Like rhubarb and asparagus, it’s better if you give your sea kale a year or two to establish before you start harvesting. But, it can produce for 10 years on average. With a little work up front and some patience, you can grow a come-and-cut kale that will thrive for a decade.
If you are a kale fan like I am (now that I grow my own), we’d love to hear about any trick you have for growing, your favorite varieties, or recipes. Just use the comments section below to share with our reading community! All hail, kale—the superfood that really is super tasting!
The post All Hail, Kale! Growing Kale at Home (With Recipe) appeared first on The Grow Network.