Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Kale

Kale

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Kale is a cold-hardy crop that can be planted in early spring or late summer. Cool weather brings out the sweet, nutty flavor of this highly nutritious leafy green. Dive into our Kale Growing Guide for information on planting, growing, and harvesting this hardworking beauty.

About Kale

Kale is a member of the Brassica family, like cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and other common “cole crops.”

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In the spring, kale can be started from seed and young kale plants can be set out very early (3 to 5 weeks before the last frost). But in many regions, kale is best grown in autumn, when temperatures are cooler. Kale tastes better when the leaves mature in cold weather.

Kale is versatile in the garden, growing well in traditional garden beds, raised beds, or containers. It’s also versatile in the kitchen and a nutritious addition to salads, stir fries, omelettes, casseroles, and other dishes.

Planting

When to Plant Kale

Kale seeds can be started indoors or sown directly in the garden. 

  • For an early summer harvest, direct-sow seeds outdoors as soon as the soil is workable in the spring. For a fall or winter harvest, direct-sow seeds about three months before your first fall frost date. 
  • In early spring, young kale plants can be set out in the garden 3 to 5 weeks before the last spring frost date. If temperatures are likely to dip well below freezing, it’s best to cover young plants at night. 
  • For a fall harvest, young kale plants can be set out 6 to 8 weeks before the first fall frost. In zones 8, 9, and 10, kale can be planted later in the fall and even into winter. 

Choosing and Preparing a Planting Site

  • Kale does best in full sun, but does tolerate partial shade.
  • The soil pH should ideally be 6.5 to 6.8 to discourage disease, but kale is tolerant of more alkaline soils up to a pH of 7.5. (Test your pH with a kit from your local cooperative extension office or garden store)
  • Based on the soil test, amend your soil with nitrogen-rich compost or blood meal. (If you didn’t test your soil, mix in a few inches of compost).
  • Soil needs to drain well and also be enriched for tender leaves. When planting, add fertilizer (1-½ cups of 5-10-10 fertilizer per 25 feet of row into the top 3 to 4 inches of soil).

How to Plant Kale

  • If you’re planting seeds, sow ¼ to ½ inch deep into well-drained, light soil.
  • After about 2 weeks, thin the seedlings so that they are spaced 8 to 12 inches apart. Kale likes to have plenty of space to stretch out.
  • If you’re setting out young plants (transplants), plant them at the depth at which they are growing in the container. Space 18 to 24 inches apart.
  • After planting, water plants well.

Check out this video to learn how to grow kale:

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Care

How to Grow Kale

  • It’s important to keep kale well watered and fed. If rain is inconsistent, provide 1 to 1.5 inches of water each week (about 1 gallon per square foot). 
  • Regularly feed kale with a continuous-release plant food.
  • Mulch the soil to keep down the weeds and keep kale cool as kale won’t grow in hot weather. 
    • Mulch the soil again heavily after the first hard freeze in the fall; the plants may continue to produce leaves throughout the winter.

Pests/Diseases

  • Cabbageworms are a common pest. Chewed holes are the sign of the green cabbage worm.
  • Flea beetles
  • Cabbage Aphids are easily solved with a spray of insecticidal soap but keep your eye out for these tiny bugs which will be clustered between the leaves.

Harvest/Storage

How to Harvest Kale

  • Kale is ready to harvest when the leaves are about the size of your hand.
  • Pick about one fistful of leaves per harvest. Start harvesting the oldest leaves firt from the lowest section of the plant. (Discard any yellowed or torn leaves.)
  • Avoid picking the terminal bud (found at the top center of the plant) because this will help to keep the plant productive.
  • Kale will continue growing until it’s 20°F. It tastes even sweeter with a touch of frost. (See local frost dates.)
  • If you wish to extend your harvest, shield your kale from the cold with row covers. Or, create a makeshift cover with tarps and old blankets propped up by hay bales. Here are a few more season-extending ideas.
  • The small, tender leaves can be eaten uncooked and used in salads.
  • Cut and cook the larger leaves like spinach, but be sure to remove the tough ribs before cooking.

How to Store Kale

  • You can store kale as you would any other leafy green; put the kale in a loose plastic produce bag and store it in the refrigerator. It should last about 1 week.

Recommended Varieties

  • ‘Vates’, which is a hardy variety and does not yellow in cold weather. It also has curly, blue-green leaves.
  • ‘Winterbor’, which resembles the ‘Vates’ variety, but is frost tolerant.
  • ‘Red Russian’, which has red, tender leaves and is an early crop.

Kale

Wit & Wisdom

  • The chill of a moderate frost or light snow improves the flavor of kale.
  • Kale has a number of health benefits, as it is rich in minerals and vitamins A and C.

Recipes

Cooking Notes

Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook

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