How to Grow Kale

Jul 16th, 2011 | By | Category: fall, Grow Something, winter
Curly Kale, Photo by: Nick Saltmarsh

Curly Kale, Photo by: Nick Saltmarsh

Another of those glorious cool season dark leafy greens, kale holds the promise of a happy palate, full stomach and good health.

Kale leaves are deep green to gray blue and broad with curly edges (sometimes VERY curly), which is what most of us know as kale. Not my favorite kale because icky things hide in those tight little ruffles, inducing vicious bugs (an exaggeration, perhaps) and dirt. (absolutely true).

You can also find kale that’s an extremely dark green, upright, and sturdy with a rough texture. That is an Italian heirloom which goes by many names, including: Locianato, cavolo nero, dinosaur, and black.

Cold climate cultivators who till soil that doesn’t fully thaw until late April, may want to get a jump start on the season by starting seeds indoors about a month or two before the last frost date, setting out the plants when they have at least two true leaves. If you garden in a mild or warm climate you can skip this step, unless you just like starting flats of seeds in advance. You folks have a mythic quality about you–like unicorns.

Optimum soil temperature for kale seeds to germinate is between 45°F and 75°F, with 65°F being very comfy. The seeds will sprout fairly quickly when soil is at the optimum temperature; it may take as little as five days up to eight to see sprouts poke through the surface of the soil. As the ambient air temperature and soil heat up to 80°F and beyond, your kale will grow, but it’s going to end up like an old naked guy getting some steam in a sauna—flaccid, bitter and just not that appetizing.

Site: Rich, well-drained soil—need I say more? That’s the mantra for just about anything you are going to grow and eat. Something that varies though is soil pH. In this case, kale prefers slightly acidic soil pH between 5.5 and 6.8. Full sun will do a plant well, but for folks living in hot sunny areas, a little shade might be just what the garden doctor ordered.

Dinosaur Kale, Photo: Tuscanycious

Dinosaur Kale, Photo: Tuscanycious

When to plant: When it comes to dark leafy greens, they usually fare best in cool weather. Did I say cool? kale has been known to tolerate temperatures as low as 20°F (on those days when the meteorologist didn’t see that cold front coming).

Folks living in warm and hot climates direct seed (or transplant if you must) so that the vegetable comes to harvest before day time temperatures exceed 80°F. That usually means planting in late summer or early fall for harvest beginning in winter and running through mid to late spring.

In parts of the country and world where summer barely breaks a sweat, and seldom sees temperatures above 80°F, plant your kale in early spring for a summer to early fall harvest.

Kale thrives in cool weather and requires a good two months of sweater weather to reach harvest.

Planting and spacing: For row planting, sow kale seed 1/2-inch deep spaced 3 inches apart, and then thin plants to 12 inches apart when they are 4 to 5 inches tall, and throw those tender young leaves into a soup of stir fry. Space rows 12 to 18 inches apart. However, for less waste, the Square Foot Gardening method is ideal. In every square food of garden where you want kale, plant just four seeds distributed evenly.

Water, feeding and care: Kale likes the wet stuff, but not too well. Just don’t let them get overly dry or the leaves will will end up tough, like some punk kid smoking unfiltered cigarettes outside of the mall.  Add well aged compost into the planting bed before  adding seeds or transplants, and then side dress the plants with aged compost every 6 weeks, or water them with compost tea. Also a good idea if you ‘re planting the curly kale and you do not use a drip irrigation system, is to surround the plants with a layer of straw to keep muddy water from splashing onto the leaves and into those tight little ruffles.

Container growing. If you don’t want to dig up the yard for a garden, you can plant kale in containers.  Direct seed or use transplants. You can comfortably grow about five plants in a 20-inch pot. The advantage of container growing is the ability to move the containers into shade or out of the cold when necessary to extend the season.

Pests. Kale is a super food, and that may be why so many garden pests love it. Cutworms, cabbage loopers, and imported cabbage worms all vie for a place at the table when kale is on the menu. For wormy and caterpillary  critters, you can achieve control by hand picking or by spraying Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt–that’s short for Bacillus thuringiensis may also be applied as a powder onto leaves.

Diseases. Kale, like Honey Badger, don’t care. It’s a tough plant and not bothered by much. It’s badass.

Delicious Kale Chips, Photo by: Joyosity

Delicious Kale Chips, Photo by: Joyosity

Harvest. If you start kale from see and transplant it into the garden, you’ll be harvesting mature leaves in 55 days, add another 15 to 20 days to that if you start by seed.

However, you can start harvesting really at any time for very young and tender leaves. If you are careful about not yanking up the entire plant, you may get new growth.

If you prefer to wait until the plants are  eight to 12 inches tall,  then use a sharp pair of garden shears or a knife, and start with the outside leaves from the plant first. Cut about two-inches from the soil.  When you cut at this height, you’ll get new growth from the plant in about a week or two.

Storing and preserving. Kale is one of those vegetables that taste better when hit by frost.  It seems to get sweeter, unlike people in Chicago waiting on an L platform in the dead of winter. Kale will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. In the cold months, kale is a great addition to soups and stews. You can also freeze the vegetable after a quick balancing; you may also can or even season and dry the kale into tasty, tasty chips.


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