Kale is Not a Hipster Vegetable

Kale
Brassica oleracea
Acephala Group

I hate to even give credence to an oft shared sentiment by even addressing it, but kale was around before the hipsters discovered it. God, am I saying I liked kale before it was cool? Well, either way this vegetable is delicious, very good for you, and easy to grow—I resent that a few haters wanna drag its name in the mud. Literally I wanna ask them, “do you not like food at all?”

Kale is nutritious, but it’s also gorgeous. It has a bold texture, and lots of flavor without being too bitter (not that I personally mind a little bitter in my greens).

There are numerous varieties of kale, though it isn’t the focus of this article to go through them. Just choose a variety you will eat or that you think is pretty. I haven’t seen a variety that doesn’t do well in our region, so the limitations are few.

Kale is a cool-season crop, and you can start as early as August if you direct-seed into an enriched garden bed (I use compost and whatever general dry organic fertilizers I happen to have around) just make sure there is at least a little nitrogen and phosphorus. The general rule is to plant seed as deep as it is large. When planted, water gently from overhead. You will start to get germination within the week depending on the age of the seed and the temperature. As seedlings emerge, thin them out to allow each plant to fully develop. If plants are too close together, they won’t reach their potential.

Usually, locally-produced potted seedlings (3-4” pots are best) are available around October through the cool season. Ask specific questions to be sure your starts are organic; not just pesticide free but also fed organically. If they say their starts are organic, they should know what the plants are fed with.

As a vegetable, most varieties of kale are long lasting plants, since you don’t generally harvest a whole specimen, but rather pick off the lower leaves as they develop to the size you want. As a consequence, you don’t need to replant more than a few successions—you may find that you want a fresh crop once or twice in a season.

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Space plants out according to mature size. Most people will allow mature plants to “kiss” or just barely touch each other. And you should plant kale so that it doesn’t shade out a shorter crop (plant to the north of shorter crops in the garden bed).

Kale is best fed every 2-3 weeks with a balanced organic fertilizer. It helps to lay down a layer of mulch around the plants to keep the sun off the soil and to break down and further enrich the bed. You can place your powdered/dry organic fertilizers between rows (worked into the soil), and/or feed with a water soluble organic fertilizer. Compost tea, applied periodically, is quite beneficial. Remember that compost tea doesn’t always provide direct nutrients, think of it as more of an inoculant of beneficial microorganisms that will break down organic material to make food.

Frost in our region doesn’t harm this vegetable though sometimes if plants are extra turgid with moisture, you may get some very temporary cosmetic damage. Kale may be wilted on those frosty mornings. But frost often makes kale taste better, so don’t worry too much about cold. Very few pests bother kale in its prime season. As it warms up in spring and approaches summer, aphids will develop and are easily sprayed off with a gush of water. Sometimes people will ask us what to do about aphid-infested kale during the midsummer—the answer is easy: pull and compost that overgrown beast. Kale isn’t a dependable summer crop, though sometimes rather tenacious individuals will persist and last another year. Some may even be edible. These specimens don’t always taste the best, but people often feel proud of their geriatric survivor kale plants that have outlived the other crops, and who are we to rain on their parade? The occasional caterpillar or grasshopper will cause minor damage, but nothing to bother over.

Kale isn’t particular about what other vegetables or herbs it grows near, but don’t let taller crops shade it out. It needs at least a half day of sun to look and taste good. Too much shade will cause weak growth, susceptible to pests. We grow ours in full sun. Since most kale grows taller, weeds may appear where the sun gets in below. Keep the area around the plants weeded.

Kale is a rather attractive plant and has ornamental function as well as edibility. Get creative if you want and make use of kale’s bold leaves and colors.

Kale is a very useful vegetable: most of the season, you will probably just pick as needed for salads, stir-fry, marinades, wilts, and more. But if you find you aren’t using kale fast enough, and you need to harvest, try cutting up kale into usable chunks and freezing. Many people use kale in their daily smoothies, and it blends up better when frozen anyway. You can also play around with fermenting kale like often done with cabbage. The result is very different than sauerkraut or kimchi, but is nonetheless delicious with some experimentation. Kale can also be dehydrated with other vegetables for reconstitution—usually used in making vegetable stocks. A very popular method of preservation is dehydrating kale to make kale chips. A quick google search will lead to numerous methods of making and flavoring kale chips. Because of the durable nature of kale, there are many possibilities, some of which haven’t even been properly explored.

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Katherine Gierlach