Growing Kale in Your Home Garden

Harvesting Healthy Kale

Kale in organic vegetable garden, Alaska, USA
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Kale (Brassica oleracea) is a leafy vegetable in the Brassica or cole crop family. It is usually grouped into the cooking greens category with collards, mustard, and Swiss chard, but it is actually more of a non-heading cabbage. The leaves grow from a central stem that elongates as it grows. Kale is a powerhouse of nutrients. The tender young leaves or fully grown leaves can be used.

Kale is much easier to grow than cabbage. It can be grown as a cut and come again vegetable, so a few plants may be all you need. The plants can be quite ornamental, with leaves that can be curly or tagged, purple or shades of green. It is considered a cool-season vegetable and can handle some frost, when mature.

Hardiness Zones

Kale is a biennial that is usually grown as an annual. It will over-winter in most zones, with adequate protection, but will collapse if exposed to heavy frosts or snow. It can be grown throughout the winter in USDA Zones 7 through 9 if winters are mild and there is adequate water.

Mature Size

The size of plants will vary with the variety. Most can get about 2 feet tall with a 1-to 3-foot spread.

Exposure

Since kale is grown for its leaves, not flowers, it can handle full sun to partial shade. Sun exposure is just one factor in growing healthy kale plants. They can handle more sun if they are given plenty of water to cool the soil. Partial shade will be required if the weather is warm and dry.

Days to Harvest

You can harvest a few young leaves, but expect to wait approximately two months for mature plants from seed. Check the days to maturity on the seed packet or plant label, for more precise timing.

Harvesting Kale

You can harvest very young leaves to use fresh in salads or allow plants to mature and use as a cooked green. Harvest older leaves by removing the larger, outer leaves and allowing the center of the plant to continue producing. Kale will be good throughout the summer months, but especially good after a light frost.

If you need to store picked kale, place it in the refrigerator and keep it moist but not sealed. It can retain it’s crispness this way for a week or two.

Suggested Varieties

Its hard to find a bad-tasting kale. The curly-leaved varieties tend to hang on longer in cold weather, but can be slower to get established than the flat-leaved types. Look for these varieties:

  • Hanover Salad: This variety is a fast grower and an early producer. It is nice for fresh use.
  • Lacinato: This is the puckered heirloom kale from Tuscany. It is sometimes listed as Tuscan or dinosaur kale. The thick leaves are hardy enough to harvest after a snowfall.
  • Redbor: Magenta leaves with curly edges give this kale a mild, crisp flavor and texture.
  • Red Russian: Red Russian has smooth, tender leaves with purple veins and edges. It is especially slug resistant.
  • Vates: This dwarf, curly, bluish-green kale is both heat and cold tolerant. It is derived from Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch.

Kale Growing Tips

Use these guidelines for healthy kale:

Soil

Kale plants like to grow in a rich soil, high in organic matter with a slightly acidic pH (5.5 to 6.5). You’re growing it for the leaves, so the high nitrogen content provided by organic matter is crucial.

The optimal soil temperature for planting is 60 to 65 F. All varieties prefer cool temperatures and will be sweetened by a touch of frost. Hot weather turns kale bitter.

Planting

Kale can be direct seeded in the garden or started indoors and set out as transplants. Start plants indoors about six weeks before your last expected frost date. Kale seeds germinate quickly in warm soil and should be up within five to eight days.

Cover seeds with about 1/2 inch of soil and don’t allow the seeds to dry out before germinating. Plants will grow more slowly outdoors than indoors under lights.

Transplant seedlings after danger of frost. Set plants out with about 16 inches of spacing between plants. This gives them room to spread out and still allows for air circulation.

You can direct seed in cold climates, in the spring, as soon as the soil can be worked and the soil temperature is at least 45 F. Kale matures quickly, in about two months or less, so if you prefer you can start your plants later or even plant multiple crops by succession planting.

In warm climates, kale can be direct seeded in late summer/early fall, as well as in the spring. A winter crop of kale in warmer climates can be much sweeter than a summer crop.

Maintenance

Keep your kale plants well-watered. Along with cool temperatures, moist soil helps keep kale leaves sweet and crisp, rather than tough and bitter.

Keep your kale growing with side dressing throughout the growing season. Use compost or feed with some type of high nitrogen fertilizer (the first number on the fertilizer label), like fish emulsion. Mulching under the plants will keep the soil cool and moist, the way kale likes it.

Pests

Kale is a member of the cabbage family, with is notorious for rot diseases and attracting insect pests. Kale is less prone to problems than cabbage or broccoli, but it can be susceptible to black rot and club root as well as aphids, cabbage loopers, cabbageworm, cutworms, flea beetles, and slugs. The best defense is to monitor the plants often for signs of eggs or feeding. Be sure you know which pest is in evidence and treat accordingly.