By Nancy Pierson Farris – Planting kale isn’t just a spring activity in our gardens. When spring crops wilt from summer’s heat, and we have the pantry lined with the fruits of our labors, we till up the soil and plant a fall garden. One mainstay of that garden is kale.
According to the USDA, “No other plant is so well adapted to fall sowing throughout a wide area. Kale is hardy and lives over winter in latitudes as far north as Maryland and Pennsylvania.” In my South Carolina garden, kale has withstood temperatures as low as eight degrees Fahrenheit.
If you’re interested in planting kale as a fall crop, sow seeds of kale in the garden about six weeks before the first frost. The row vacated by bush beans, which are usually finished bearing by midsummer, makes a good spot. Legumes fix nitrogen into soil, and any leafy vegetable needs a good supply of nitrogen for healthy growth.
If you’ve ever wondered what makes good soil for planting kale, just like cabbage, kale prefers well-limed soil. When planting kale in your fall garden, always check the pH and add lime if needed to bring the pH into the range of 6.5-6.8.
To produce tender, tasty leaves, kale needs adequate nutrition. I use well-rotted compost in the planting furrow, covering it with an inch of soil before I sow seeds. To ensure continued growth, I use fish emulsion, but manure tea would do as well. Pour the fertilizer along the row, about three inches from week-old seedlings. Two weeks later, repeat the process.
In our area of South Carolina, August weather is usually very hot and dry. When I’m planting kale outdoors for my fall garden, I lay a soaker hose between rows and turn it on for a few minutes two or three times a day until seedlings emerge. If the weather seems too intense, I start seedlings in flats on my screened porch. The flats are protected from the sun for half-a-day, and the emerging seedlings are safe from insect damage.
Kale develops a root system near the surface of the ground, and it spreads some distance from the plant. Deep cultivation would damage roots, so keep those tiller tines six inches away from the kale. Since I am partially blind, and a hoe can become a lethal weapon in my hands, I prefer to weed by hand. I can see and identify what I grab before I pull it out.
During late summer, the sun beats down and rains may not come regularly. If you know how to lay mulch, a layer of mulch helps keep roots cool and also retains soil moisture. As fall leads into winter, mulch protects roots from changing temperatures as the nights get cool and a frost may come without warning.
Kale is bothered by the same problems as cabbage or collards. Those little white or yellow butterflies lay eggs, and green worms hatch out to eat holes in the leaves you wanted for yourself. I patrol the garden daily, checking leaves, crushing any egg clusters I find. Early morning is the best time to catch the worms at work. Since we don’t use poisons on our property, we have a good bird population to help with insect control. When the Carolina wrens have nestlings clamoring for breakfast, they utilize a great many green cabbage worms. We dust once a week with bacillus thurengiensis, a biological product which sickens any worms missed by the birds and me.
Aphids may bother kale, especially in spring. A vigorous stream of water washes off aphids, or insecticidal soap can be applied. Unless the problem is unusually severe, I wait for ladybugs to arrive and dine on the aphids.
A few gardening tips for planting kale: When kale plants are large enough to use, I thin them. The small, tender leaves make a nice addition to a fall salad. As they become larger, I shred leaves into stir-fry or coleslaw. When the plants stand about a foot apart in the row, I harvest outer leaves and let the plant continue to bear. I have had kale continue bearing through two complete seasons-fall/winter, through summer, and another fall/winter. Though summer heat causes the leaves to become tough and strong flavored, a touch of frost brings kale to peak eating quality.
Kale puts a good serving of nutrition on the dinner plate. A half cup serving contains only 22 calories, but provides a day’s supply of vitamins A and C, and about as much calcium as a half-cup of milk. There are also some B vitamins and iron in that mound of greens. But that isn’t all kale can do for you.
A study was done in 2002 to determine the role of common vegetables in health. Using a well-known in vitro technique to screen possible cancer-preventive agents, researchers found that crude vegetable extracts triggered increases in certain protective proteins which help to detoxify cancer-causing agents in the body. Among the results: kale caused an eight-fold increase in the protective proteins.
This year, as your summer garden wanes, you might want to consider planting kale in your garden. A twenty-foot row will produce enough to feed a family. When I have more kale than I want, I freeze some of it. I wash the greens carefully, then place in a little water and bring it to a boil. When the greens are thoroughly wilted (they “cook down” some, but not as much as spinach or chard) I take out one or two cupfuls to cool and pack for the freezer. I season what’s left in the pot and cook a bit longer to serve for the next meal.
This fall, you might want to try a short row of kale in your own garden. A 20-foot row of this cut-and-come-again vegetable will feed a family. If your winters are very severe, you can grow kale in a deep container in an unheated sunroom or enclosed porch.
Originally published in the July/August 2005 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.