This care guide provides a comprehensive and easy-to-follow guide for growing kale. Kale is a hardy and versatile vegetable that offers a range of nutritional benefits and can be grown throughout the year. This guide covers everything from choosing the best varieties of kale to preparing the ground for planting, sowing the seeds, and transplanting the young plants to their final location. Whether you are new to gardening or a seasoned pro, this care guide will equip you with the knowledge and tools needed to grow your own kale and enjoy its delicious and nutritious benefits.
Kale has gained popularity as a superfood due to its nutritional benefits. This vegetable is not only easy to grow, but it also looks great and is productive. It offers mini salad leaves and tasty greens that can be used for cooking or added to smoothies. In particular, kale is an excellent option for winter as it provides fresh leaves even in the coldest weather.
Kale belongs to the cabbage or brassica family, and it’s one of the hardiest vegetables. It can withstand harsh winter weather and still provide fresh pickings during the cold months. These plants can grow up to 90cm tall, but you can also find dwarf varieties suitable for smaller spaces. Kale plants can be ornamental as well, with different varieties of smooth, ruffled, or frilly green or purple-red leaves, sometimes with purple veins or stem.
You can enjoy kale in two ways. Firstly, you can harvest mini-leaves from young plants as a cut and come again salad crop. Secondly, you can use it as greens for cooking and harvest it from autumn through to spring. The leaves can be harvested over several months, and regular picking encourages more growth.
Choosing your Kale
Kale is a versatile vegetable that comes in a wide range of attractive and delicious varieties. You can choose from smooth, ruffled, or densely frilly leaves, which are either long and narrow, broad, or deeply divided, in different shades of green to dark purple-red. While ‘Cavolo Nero’ or ‘Black Tuscan’ is the most well-known variety, there are several other excellent options that can add interest to your veg plot, borders, and meals.
To ensure that you grow the most reliable and high-performing kale varieties, look for those with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM). This certification indicates that the kale has undergone rigorous testing and performed exceptionally well in trials. By selecting AGM kale varieties, you can increase your chances of having a thriving and abundant kale harvest.
Preparing the ground
For optimal growth, it is recommended to provide kale with nutrient-rich and well-drained soil. However, it can adapt to various soil types and conditions. Although kale thrives in sunlight, it can also tolerate some degree of shade.
Before planting kale, ensure that the soil is free of weeds by thoroughly weeding the ground. Afterwards, incorporate a generous amount of well-rotted manure or garden compost into the soil. Once this is done, rake the soil level and ensure it is firmly packed.
To successfully grow your own kale, it is recommended to sow the seeds in a separate seedbed, rather than the main vegetable plot. This will allow for the seedlings to be transplanted to their final growing location with ample space, as kale is a slow-growing plant that requires a wide spacing. However, if transplanting is not preferred, sowing directly into the final site is also an option.
Starting off the seeds indoors is also an alternative method, with the seedlings being transplanted straight into their final growing position.
As kale typically grows into large plants, it is important to provide plenty of ground space. Dwarf varieties are available and are a more compact option. When growing kale as a salad crop, keeping the plants small is possible and will require less space than mature plants.
For growing your own kale, consider starting indoors in mid-spring for an early start. Prepare a modular tray by filling it with multi-purpose compost and watering it well. Proceed to make a 1cm deep hole in each module and sow two seeds. Once done, cover them with compost and wait for germination. In case both seeds germinate, remove the weaker ones to ensure proper growth. After hardening off, transplant the young kale plants outdoors in early summer.
To grow kale, start by sowing the seeds outdoors between March and June in the well-prepared ground. If you sow in spring, you can harvest the leaves for cooking in the autumn, while summer sowings will yield crops for winter and spring. For continuous harvesting of mini salad leaves, make small sowings at regular intervals.
To sow the seeds, draw a shallow drill about 1cm deep using a stick or the blade of a trowel. Water the base of the drill if the soil is dry. Sow the seeds thinly along the drill, spacing multiple rows at least 15cm apart.
Once the seedlings germinate, thin them out by removing the weaker ones to give the remaining plants enough space to grow. Initially, thin them to 7.5cm apart, and you can use the thinnings as baby leaves in salads. Protect the seedlings from slugs, snails, and birds if necessary.
In early summer, transplant the young kale plants to their final site, leaving 45cm between them. Alternatively, thin them out further and move the extra plants to form new rows. If you’re growing kale as a cut-and-come-again salad crop, you won’t need to thin the plants.
To successfully grow your own kale, it is important to know when and how to transfer your young plants to their final growing position. Once your kale plants have developed five or six true leaves, it’s time to move them.
Before transferring, ensure that the young kale plants are well-watered the day before the move. The site for their final growth should be prepared as previously detailed, with firm soil to accommodate their large, top-heavy growth and withstand harsh winter weather.
To move the plants, carefully lift them from their current location, taking care not to disturb the roots. When placing them in their new planting hole, ensure that they are deep enough so that the lowest leaves are at ground level. Finally, space each plant 45cm apart and water generously to settle the roots.
If you are planting kale grown from seed indoors or newly purchased young plants, it is recommended to follow the above method in early summer after the process of hardening off.
To ensure optimal growth, it’s important to water young kale plants regularly until they establish a strong root system. Once the plants are well-established, they generally require watering only during periods of dry weather.
To assist in moisture retention and weed control, it’s recommended to spread a generous amount of mulch around your kale plants. You can use options such as garden compost or well-rotted manure for this purpose.
To enhance the yield of your overwintered kale, consider providing a dose of nitrogen-rich fertiliser during the spring season. This will not only give your plants a much-needed boost but also improve the overall quality of your harvest.
To ensure optimal growth of your kale plants, it’s important to maintain a weed-free environment for the seedlings and young plants. This helps to minimise competition for essential resources such as light, water, and nutrients.
It is recommended to provide support for tall kale varieties by using a strong bamboo cane, particularly in areas with high wind exposure. This will protect the plants from the strong winter gusts which can cause instability in the top-heavy growth and may result in root damage.
From September onwards, begin to remove young leaves from the top of the kale plant. After the main crown has been harvested, side shoots will develop, which can be used from February to March. When picking these shoots, select those that are still young and about 10-15cm long.
For a continuous harvest, start picking the leaves as soon as the plant reaches a height of 10-15cm, if it’s grown as a cut and come again salad crop. You can either pick individual leaves from different plants or cut the entire rosette of leaves from a plant, which should re-sprout to provide another crop.
Kale is an easy-to-grow vegetable that can withstand various conditions and requires minimal attention. Despite this, a few pests may pose a challenge, such as slugs and snails, birds, whitefly, and cabbage white butterflies.
Protecting from pests
When growing your own kale, it’s important to take measures to protect your seedlings and young plants from common pests. Slugs and snails can be particularly problematic, so be sure to take steps to keep them at bay.
In addition, you may also need to protect your plants from birds and cabbage white caterpillars. To do this, consider covering your plants with insect-proof mesh or fleece, which can be supported by a structure of bamboo canes.
Because kale is a brassica, it is also susceptible to cabbage root fly, though not as much as other brassica crops. To help prevent this pest from damaging your plants, you can place a felt cabbage collar around the base of the stems. These collars can also help to prevent weed growth and may even deter slugs and snails as well.
Growing your own kale is an easy and rewarding experience that offers fresh greens, salad leaves and a variety of tasty and nutritious meals. With its hardy nature and adaptability to various soil types and conditions, kale is a versatile vegetable that can withstand harsh winter weather and provide fresh pickings during the colder months. Choosing reliable and high-performing kale varieties is important, and preparing the ground and sowing seeds correctly is vital for optimal growth. When transplanting young kale plants, it’s essential to ensure that they are well-watered and that their new location has firm soil that can support their top-heavy growth. Whether you grow kale as a salad crop or for cooking, regular harvesting encourages more growth, and with the right care, you can enjoy this superfood in all its variety throughout the year.