Kale’s reputation as a super-food is rightly deserved because it’s full of vitamins, minerals and nutrients. The only problem with kale is that it’s often unappetising when you buy it from the supermarket. The good news is that chewing on tough kale in the name of health can be avoided when you grow your own and pick the young, tasty leaves.
It’s not difficult to grow kale because it’s one of the easiest crops to manage. Kale survives sub-zero temperatures and presents you with fresh greens in February and March – not may crops can claim that.
Want to try? Here are five tips that will help you grow this simple and delicious super-food right in your own back garden.
Germinate The Seeds
Pick the kale variety you want and sow the seeds in module trays from April to early May using standard multi-purpose compost. Keep them damp and warm and they’ll push through around 10 days later.
You can also plant them outside directly in the soil at a depth of 1cm. Cover seed drills with a cloche if cats and birds are a problem, but ensure they receive plenty of water.
• Tip: A sunny window sill is perfect if you don’t have a greenhouse
Pick the strongest seedlings from your module trays and transplant them into rows when they reach 10-15cms high or have four to six true leaves.
Try to keep the root system in place as this gives them the best start in the soil. Place young kale around 45cms apart and bury them right up to the first leaves – which will be deeper than the module tray. This gives them the opportunity to grow extra roots. Tread your kale in firmly and water well.
If you’ve chosen a variety of rape kale, hold off planting the seeds until late June to early July. Rape kale gives the very latest green leaves of the season in early spring, and excess early greenery only hampers its ability to survive the cold.
Rape kale doesn’t like transplantation, so pop this one straight in the soil.
• Tip – put mulch around the roots with rotted manure, but don’t get any on the stem.
Should I Improve Soil Conditions?
Kale isn’t picky about soil conditions. It will happily grow just about anywhere. The only soil kale doesn’t like is waterlogged soil which will rot its roots. The very best start for kale is in soil that’s been improved with manure.
In January your soil may start to become tired as the kale uses up its nutrients. It’s a good idea to use a liquid fertiliser at this point to perk up your kale and jump-start new growth. It doesn’t mind the cold, but it does need nutrients.
• Tip: Firm soil suits kale because it keeps its roots in place.
Harvesting the Right Way
Kale is usually ready to pick from late October.
Make the most of your kale by harvesting properly, this means not over-picking because kale needs some of its leaves to photosynthesis. Pick little and often with a sharp knife and choose leaves that are hand-sized or smaller. You can pick and compost any yellowed leaves.
If you pick from the kale’s crown in autumn it will generate further shoots down the stalk in the winter months. These shoots are delicious because frosts synthesise plants starches into sugar, making them taste sweeter.
Cut and come again kale is a more recent popular choice. You can pick your kale leaves when the plant reaches five centimetres high and then let it regenerate.
• Tip – Harvest and eat the flowers if they appear, as this will stop your kale going to seed. The flowers are delicious lightly steamed.
Caring for Kale
This is a low-maintenance crop. It will need some water in the hot summer months, but other than that, there’s not much to do. It’s pretty resistant to pests but caterpillars like a nibble. Either use butterfly netting on your kale or pick the caterpillars off and put them on the bird table. Scrape off any eggs too, before they get a chance to develop.
Other winged kale fans may appear in winter – pigeons love to pick brassicas clean when there isn’t much food around for them, but netting the kale solves your problem.
Removing weeds means your kale gets all the soil nutrients without competition. Hoe between the rows on hot days or cover the weeds with thick mulch. Mulching prevents the soil drying out, feeds the kale and deprives the weeds of light.
• Tip – stake taller varieties in the autumn so winter winds don’t rock roots loose.
That really is it. Kale is so simple to grow, requiring little fuss and giving plenty in return. Make space for kale this year, it tastes so much better from the garden!
Clive Harris is a passionate gardener and DIY enthusiast. Most weekends you’ll find in out the garden planting and pruning, or building something crazy for his kid! Feel free to check out his blog DIY Garden or Facebook page for more interesting garden ideas.