Kale is a particularly easy and rewarding crop for the home gardener. It’s a nutritional powerhouse, rich in vitamins A, C and B6, as well as, minerals and dietary fiber. It’s also a long-lived low-maintenance crop, cold hardy and not very prone to disease. Last but not least it’s versatile, adding nutrition and flavor to many different dishes.
How to Grow and Care for Kale
Kale is a heavy feeder with an appetite for nitrogen. Organic growers should add plenty of compost or well-rotted manure to their soil. Kale can be direct-seeded or transplanted outside up to 5 weeks before the date of the last expected spring frost and succession-planted until 6 weeks before the first expected fall frost. It will produce over a long season, but its flavor is best after fall frosts increase the sugar content of leaves.
Spacing will depend on how you want to use your kale. Baby kale for salads or juicing can be sown 1″ apart in furrows spaced 4″ apart, or on a 2″ grid in a bed. Mature kale for cooking requires more space–allow 12″ between plants for smaller varieties like Red Russian, 18″ or more for larger plants like Winterbor.
Plant kale seeds 1/4″ – 1/2″ deep in moist soil, in a space where it will receive at least 5 hours of sun every day. In hot climates summer-sown kale will benefit from afternoon shading.
Kale Pests, Diseases and Problems
Kale is a fairly hardy crop, but there are still some pests and diseases that may occur.
Curled, puckered, yellow leaves may be a sign of aphid infestation. Look on the undersides of leaves for soft-bodied green, brown or pink insects about the size of pinheads. Aphids can be handpicked or killed with organic insecticidal soap. Ladybugs eat aphids.
Ragged holes in leaves may be caused by cabbage loopers or cabbage worms, light green yellow-striped caterpillars. Handpick them or spray with Bacillus thuringiensis.
Tiny pinholes in your leaves may be the work of flea beetles, tiny black jumping beetles that are very hard to handpick. Skeletonized leaves may be caused by the Mexican bean beetle. Leaves chewed to the stem suggest the presence of vegetable weevils. Pyrethrum spray may control these pests. Pyrethrum is organic but toxic to bees–spray it in the evening when pollinators aren’t active. Curly kale may be less susceptible to beetle damage than flat-leafed kale.
Powdery mildew is more apt to strike kale seedlings in the greenhouse than outdoor kale. Dusty gray spots spread rapidly over the leaves and the plants are weakened. Prune off infected leaves, dipping your cutters in a bleach-and-water solution after each cut, or spray with organic fungicides. Curly kale is less susceptible than flat-leafed kale.
Black leg causes sunken areas to develop around the stem near the ground and gray spots to appear on leaves and stems. The whole plant may wilt and die. This is hard to cure. Remove and destroy (do not compost) infected plants.
Flat-leafed kales like White and Red Russian are prized for their tenderness and flavor, but they are susceptible to pest and disease problems as noted above.
Curly kales like Vates and Winterbor are highly productive and more cold-hardy, pest-resistant and disease-resistant than other kale varieties.
Three Favorite Ways to Prepare Kale from the Garden
Young leaves may be eaten raw in salads or juiced. Older leaves are best cooked. Here are a few cooking suggestions, and really our favorite ways to eat kale:
If you like steamed kale, try mixing them with cheese and pesto for lasagna filling. Or, make a kale pesto! Add them to fried rice along with onions, eggs and soy sauce. Kale can be thrown in just about anything as you are cooking.
Using kale in salads is one of our favorite ways to use kale from the garden, specifically with an Asian dressing or seasonings. This is a great side dish that is really easy. You can add apples and cheeses. But it can stay simple, too, with a light Asian dressing.
Make “kale chips” by tearing leaves into pieces, drizzling them with olive oil and salt and baking them on paper-lined cookie sheets at 350 – 375 F for 5-7 minutes. This makes a great cooking project with children.
Want to learn more about how to grow kale?
For more information, consult Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver and/or the following resources:
The Book of Kale: The Easy-to-Grow Superfood 80+ Recipes (Amazon affiliate link)
How to Grow Kale from Seed from NC Cooperative Extension
Kale: A nutrition powerhouse from Alaskan gardens from University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension
Please note that links to Amazon from Gardening Channel are affiliate links.