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Kale
(Brassica oleracea)


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The taste of kale is rather strong, and characteristic of the brassicas; its chief traditional use--like that of so many Brassicas--was as a winter vegetable, for it can, in many climates, literally grow up through the snow. We have found it, even at its home-grown best, rather coarse as to both texture and flavor, and have given up on it, there being too many better greens that can be frozen for use as needed in cooking. But, having done the homework, we present this page for those whose tastes are other than ours.


Cultivars

Kale plant.

There are many cultivars of kale around, but an article featuring both a growing and a tasting comparison of several leading types, plus comment from Frank Morton, a renowned kale developer, leads us to the same conclusions as the article itself:

If you want kale for cool-weather salads, go with White Russian; if you live where it gets cold and want to stretch your season, grow Vates; if you fancy cooked kale, try Lacinato (an heirloom also known as Tuscan Black or Dinosaur Kale).

Since the White Russian is commonly described as being the mildest and sweetest kale available (having been developed for just those characteristics, and differing from many kales in being basically a turnip green), plus is quite winter-hardy--down to the single-digit temperatures when mulched--it seems a no-brainer choice.

(Incidentally, even biologists cannot agree on whether there is any real distinction other than appearance between kale and collard greens; also, Russian kales are, technically, a different species, Brassica napus var. pabularia, but are cultivated and used just like B. oleracea.)

Kale, as a brassica, cannot be grown in the same soil any more often than once every four years (else there is a serious clubroot infection risk). Because it eats up a lot of growing space if planted in a bed with the other brassicas, one thus would like to grow one's kale in a bucket or other generous planter, separate from one's main crops; one can then annually dump out the soil far from any growing areas.


Planting

Timing

Kale, like most brassicas, does not like hot weather; moreover, it is at its best and sweetest after exposure to some frost (many cool-weather vegetables, especially roots, share that quality, which has to do with the plant's being triggered to convert some of its stored starches to sugars). It grows best when daytime temperatures do not exceed 75°F. Moreover, even young plants are not seriously damaged by temperatures down to as low as 25°F.

While kale can be seeded indoors and later transplanted, it is hardy enough that one can afford to direct-seed it where it is to grow. Kale typically matures in about two months, or even a little less; one can plant it for a fall/winter crop in middle to late September, and again (if one is succession growing for a steady supply) around Thanksgiving time, late November; with luck and care (such as mulching), that last planting will take one through the winter. The stuff is so cold-hardy that it might even produce during winter, and continue on into spring, till it gets too hot for it, in early summer.

You can see from that, and the fact that kale needs a lot of space if planted in a bed, why one is best to rely on a large pot per plant; two pots would do--one for the maturing plant, the other for its successor).


The Bed

Like most cole crops (except cauliflower), kale is fairly indifferent to soil type and pH, but does want well-drained soil; some sources say coles prefer a slightly alkaline soil, a hair over 7.0, but most any decent garden soil should do. Coles are also said to prefer a "heavy" soil, so--within reasonable bounds--clay is not a problem. And while they are reputedly not fussy about needing direct sun, direct sun is how they grow best. They like soil with plenty of calcium (old-timers used to enrich the soil with crushed eggshells).


Seeding

Jeavons recommends a 15-inch spacing in deep or raised beds, though some deep-bed gardeners risk a slighly closer spacing; it is said that most kales will grow into whatever space there is, but will have larger leaves and thicker shoots as more and more room is available to them. As we say, we like the idea of large pots (c. 16 inches); if you go that route, you can use permanent pots, or just those grey "cardboard" annuals--which can last a lot longer than that--available at any garden store, putting one kale in a pot. (That works well, because you only need one or two unless you are a kale fanatic.)


Growing

Water as needed--about as you would cabbage. (Some sources say water infrequently but deeply.) Do not apply extra fertilizer: excess nitrogen will cause sappy--and thus frost-sensitive--tissue.

Whenever the plants start to look of moderate size, you can being harvesting leaves on the "cut and come again" basis; with care and just a little luck, you may be able to harvest greens all winter long--even if you have to brush off some snow to get at them. (Some cold protection in deepest winter, like a mulch, will help.)

Once kale does get past the leaf stage (usually in the spring), it goes to the flowering-shoot stage. Such shoots can be harvested rather like broccoli; and those that go beyond the bud stage make edible flowers, usable in salads or as soup garnishes.


More

Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:


Odds and Ends

Biology

What is collectively called "kale" by gardeners encompasses two species (Brassica napus and B. oleracea, each of which has several races (subspecies), making a total of ten members of the genus Brassica (family Cruciferae) that are usually called "kale"; the Plants for a Future "kale" page details the list (and there are a few non-Brassica crucifers not far off, such as "seakale", Crambe cordifolia). The full picture can be confusing.

B. oleracea was the wild ancestor of cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and cauliflower; it arose along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Europe. Today, there are at least a half dozen recognized races of B. oleracea, such as Brassica oleracea Alboglabra (which includes the white-flowered Chinese kale, native to Southeast Asia).

The other "kale" genus is B. napus; that--to complicate matters--also takes in not only such things as the noted "Red Russian" and "White Russian" kale, but also what gardeners commonly call rutabagas (or "Swedes" or "Swede turnips") as well as rape (now often, for social reasons, called canola), from which a valuable oil is commercially extracted; the genus is today widely adapted throughout northern Eurasia, though its region of origin is unknown.



History

The old, original Brassica oleracea ancestor is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe, and is somewhat similar in appearance to a leafy canola plant. Sometime soon after the first domestication of plants, that ancestral plant was being grown as a leafy vegetable around the Mediterranean. Because the leaves were the part of the plant consumed, those plants with the largest leaves were selectively propagated for next year's crop.

By the 5th century B.C., that continued preference for ever-larger leaves led to the vegetable we now know as kale (known botanically as Brassica oleracea acephala, "headless cabbage"). Eventually, the other cole crops familiar today, from cabbage to Brussels sprouts, were bred out of kale.



Envoi

Yet again: rotate crucifer crops! Don't plant kale, or any other cole crop, in the same soil more often than at most, once every four years.



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