Growing Kale – a Great Alternative to Cabbage

, written by gb flag

Kale growing in the garden

Kale has had a bad press for a long time. Goodness knows why, although it’s reputation as a poor man’s vegetable hasn’t helped. It’s also fed to cattle, which never does much for a veggie’s image. I’m delighted that it’s undergoing a renaissance.

It started a few years ago when the dark, dramatic Cavolo Nero appeared in seed catalogues, and since then more and more varieties have been released. This is particularly good for potagers, where the enormous variety of colours and leaf shapes offered by kale add character to the mixed borders.

Why Grow Kale?

You shouldn’t be without kale for a whole host of reasons. First, it suffers less from pests than most brassicas. I gave up growing cabbage some years ago, worn down by the constant battle with pigeons and caterpillars. While kale isn’t immune from their attentions, it appears much less attractive and, being in effect a loose-leaf cabbage, damage to a few leaves has much less impact on the whole plant than, say, a rapacious caterpillar in the centre of a drumhead cabbage. The curly-leaved varieties withstand the cabbage white butterfly’s attention best, probably because its leaves make it harder to lay eggs.

Kale flower head
Kale flower head

The advantages don’t stop there. Decorative and pest-resistant, kale needs very little attention, is very hardy, and actually improves in taste with frost. Plants can be harvested almost continuously (growth does slow down in the darkest months) and I’d aim for 8-12 plants for a good continuous supply. They last throughout the winter, produce leaves early in the spring and, when they eventually start to produce flower buds, these too can be eaten before they open, like broccoli.

When not to Grow Kale

I’ve never, sad to say, lived in a very hot climate, but general advice is that kale prefers cooler temperatures (60-70°F, 15-21°C), and although it will tolerate drought and hot weather, both will affect its quality and can encourage bolting. It does, however, tolerate partial shade and, if you do live in a hotter climate, you may like to try it in shadier spots, but heat can make kale taste bitter and collards are recommended for warmer areas.

Kale seedling
Kale seedling

How to Grow Kale Like an Expert

Seed packets may tell you different, but I wouldn’t bother sowing kale until late spring (May and early June in the UK) or even early summer. Ideally, you want well-drained soil that nevertheless remains moist, so it’s a good idea to mulch around the plants.

When I first started gardening I thought that kale had to be transplanted, as all the instructions told you to do so. You don’t. It can be sown in situ (if you do this, then thin the kale gradually to the final recommended spacings – thinnings can be used in salads or stir fries).

The reason it’s often transplanted is to allow room for earlier vegetables in the kale’s final planting space (easy to organise using our Garden Planner’s succession planting feature). In a typical crop rotation sequence, it can follow on from early peas, early potatoes, broad beans and lettuces, even French beans.

Young kale plant

If sowing into the ground, rather than in pots, sow thinly about a half inch deep (1 cm), in rows six inches (15 cms) apart. As they grow, thin to around 3 inches (7.5 cms) apart.

Transplant when the seedlings are around 4-6 inches (10-15 cms) tall (generally around a month after sowing) and place them 14-20 inches (35-50 cms) apart (depending on whether you’ve chosen a dwarf or full-size variety) in rows 18 inches (45cms) apart. Bury the stems up to just below the level of the lowest leaves. Tread the soil down around the base of plants firmly and continue to do this from time to time, to prevent any "wind-rock" as they grow.

I start harvesting when the plant is around 18 inches (45 cms) high and has reasonable sized leaves, but you could start earlier (but gently) for salads and stir fries. Take a few leaves at a time from each plant. If you remove the head (which I normally do in late autumn, then side shoots start to develop. These are great when eaten young, about 5 inches (12cms) long.

Home-grown kale, lightly steamed and drizzled with fresh lemon juice is wonderful and with so many varieties to explore I hope you'll agree that kale is well worth finding space for in any garden!

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Comments

 
"I live in South West France and have always found Kale easy to grow. It's nice to have a veg that doesn't die off if the winter's too harsh. I just cut off several leaves when I need them (great in bubble and squeak) and the plant grows on. The autumn batch I planted are now beginning to flower but I put some new seeds down a few weeks ago and they should take their place. Well worth growing! I tried Giant Red Mustard this winter as well and have to say that's brilliant to grow. Survived the harsh winter and tastes just like cabbage when cooked."
Sherri on Saturday 12 May 2012
"I sowed kale seeds last fall (September, a little later than I wanted, but I figured I'd give it a go. We had a mild Connecticut winter here in the US, and by March, new growth was happening. I have been harvesting the leaves ever since, mild enough for salads, or sauteed with some garlic and olive oil! I plan on pulling the plants in about 2 weeks to make room for warm weather plants. But will definately plan on fall sowing, I am hooked!"
Jenn on Sunday 13 May 2012
"Dos the same apply to curly kale, a Dutch variety?"
Jan-Pieter Verhoef on Friday 18 May 2012
"Hi Sherri and Jenn, glad to hear I've got some fellow enthusiasts out there. Jan-Pieter, yes, it applies to curly kale. In fact, this tends to suffer even less from caterpillar attack, as the crinkly leaves are harder to lay eggs on. "
Helen Gazeley on Friday 18 May 2012
"Right on Sister! Kale is our insurance plan as we grow 60-80 plants and we live in the USA where there is poor health insurance for those who are not rich or poor. It has transformed our health as well as our three black lab's. Winterbor, Russian and Roodnerf are our favorite here in the NE. It so outshines and outgrows spinach. "
wwruns on Friday 18 May 2012
"Can I grow Kale in the SE United States (Florida Gulf Coast). If so, when would I plant it in the garden. Probably not mid summer around here! "
Karen on Friday 18 May 2012
"I grow it all summer and into Nov here in Perth Ontario near Ottawa. The curly var lots great among the perennial garden add great color and goodness to the old stirfry"
Peter on Thursday 7 June 2012
"Has anyone had problems with aphids on brassicas? We're in northern California, and our first try at kale was a complete failure due to a bad infestation. This was despite spraying with an organic aphid control product weekly. Thanks for any advice!"
Evelyn on Saturday 16 June 2012
"I've grown curly kale for the last 3 years on our allotment, and never had any trouble with it at all. I've tried to grow other brassicas including broccoli and red cabbage but caterpillars from cabbage white butterflies have just devoured them, even with netting. They have never effected kale, which means it will be on our plot for years to come! "
Andi on Wednesday 4 July 2012
"Thank you for your help, I've grown Kale for the first time this summer but realize now that late summer will give a better taste, the insects have hardly touched the Kale."
Glen on Monday 21 January 2013
"Hi Sherri I am really hopefull to grow Kale or even find a comapny to deliver kale, here in France. I live near Cannes, in the South of France. You say you are growing in South West of France, would love any advice. Found a company selling seeds, here. Thanks "
julie Sofonea on Saturday 5 October 2013
"Hi All, we are based in the beautiful city of Joburg, South Africa. The type of kale we grew last year here died during winter. What type can we try that will grow in winter? Our prayer is to plant at least 5 hectares of kale this coming winter which is from late May to early September. Please advise where we can get the seed. We are prepared to come collect and pay for the seeds. Thanks and God bless "
Jacob Chidawaya on Sunday 23 March 2014
"Ah, Jan Verhoef, are you thinking of Boerekool ? We grow it in North Wales and have converted several people to this dish. fantastic. This is how it is done, boil the kale in a little water until soft. In the mean time slice some potatoes in thin slices. Add the potatoes to the kale and carry on cooking until potatoes are done, then smash the lot season to your liking. We use sea salt a little chilli. In the very meantime dice a piece of pork, (belly of pork is the best)to small cubes of 5mm in size. Fry until crisp and add to the rest. You'll love it. "
Aries Janssens on Monday 11 August 2014
"I planted kale about 1 year ago and it lasted through this winter of -19C in Toronto, Ontario. However, when spring came, it started to form several branches of yellow flower. Is there a point in growing it longer then this? I buy the plant and don't need to collect the seed. Will it go back to growing the big leaves again if I cut the yellow flowers off? Thanks. "
Mai on Friday 20 May 2016
"Hi Mai. If it has started to flower that means it is reaching the end of it's life. Unfortunately it won't grow harvestable leaves again, so it's best to lift up all the plants and sow a fresh crop."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 23 May 2016
"5 Years ago posted on here. Found kale seeds, and had huge success, have come back year after year. For the South of France, best months for crops (in my experience) are February/ April, can be as early as January, and as late as May. Plus Plus, very expensive to buy Fresh Kale here, and hard to source"
julie SOFONEA on Friday 21 September 2018
"You can't beat fresh kale. Lightly steamed with a dusting of white pepper is my favourite - and it's also good for packing goodness into smoothies."
Ben Vanheems on Friday 21 September 2018

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