Bello Food Gardening with Fi Morgan: Kale

In this week's edition of Bello Food Gardening, Fi Morgan takes us through the hows and whys of growing the perennial winter crop kale.

Kale

‘Brassica Oleracea’.

Why grow kale? I mean sure it’s nutrient dense, reliable for 10 months of the year and bombproof…(1) I think that may have answered the why??

This plant is considered super nutritious for vitamins and minerals. (2)
It’s a prolific plant which is always what you want in your vege garden. Make life easy. Grow things that grow with abundance. Harvesting is simple. Just snap off leaves as you need them for continuous picking over most of the year. (3)
It has a well deserved reputation for being hardy. The plants are known to have done well here through hot drought periods as well as inundating wet periods! Yes, even those extended drought and flood sessions we’ve had recently. (3) 

This is also a perennial plant who will last for at least two years in this area. (4–6) Hooray for less gardening work! 

Kale is a cool season plant. 

Frost affects kale. Not in the way it kills off most plants. Frost makes kale taste sweeter. (7) Mature kale plants are fine with frost and snow. (8) In fact, they are fine down to -15°C. (9) My first encounter with a kale plant was seeing one happily growing in fairly deep snow in Scotland. Like a very misplaced palm tree. I was astonished. This is a plant that will grow and be productive through Canadian, Scottish and Russian winters, and taste sweeter for the cold. Crazy!

It’s not only a cool season plant. Kale will grow all year round and be productive. Even in our belting summers. It may slow down over the hottest months and appreciate some shadecloth if you get around to it, but it shouldn’t die. Don’t try planting it in summer though, you’re unlikely to be very successful. Many plants go to seed once the weather gets too hot for their comfort, but kale restrains itself and does not tend to bolt. (10)

Just remember, it’s favourite conditions and most prolific time are the cooler months. 

This is definitely a resilient food staple.

As a brassica, it suffers from the unwanted attentions of the cabbage moth who lays her caterpillar eggs on all the brassica family for munching. There are fewer cabbage moths around in winter.

You most likely will need to do *something* about the cabbage moth. Netting is an option that works. (3) Dipel (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a bacteria that produces a protein that only insects use and which disrupts their feeding. This is an organic certified option that will kill caterpillars. It’s sprayed on as needed. (11,12) Other suggestions are to confuse the moth by planting heavily scented plants nearby, or have a decoy the moth prefers such as nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), (13) or planting upland / winter cress (Barbarea verna) which is very attractive to them and also toxic to them. (12)

Other creatures who might want a piece of kale are snails when the plants are small. Did you know kale plants can grow to be a two meter high stalk? Once the kale gets some height, it’s usually out of reach of snails. Bowerbirds might take a fancy to the kale and netting works to foil their destruction too. (3)

There are a huge number of varieties of kale. It’s a really hardy plant, it’s hard to emphasise that enough, so any variety should be fine. Some that have been grown here include: 

Ivory Garden

Black Tuscan / Nero di Toscana / Black Toscana / Cavolo Nero

Red Russian

Curly

Italian Lacinato or dinosaur kale 

Blue (Scotch) Curled

What to do with it? Use it anywhere you would use spinach! It’s versatile. Kale chips are popular too.

Want to get growing? Seeds germinate best with a soil temperature between 8 – 30°C. Sow them anytime except during summer. Sow 10 mm deep in trays to transplant, or direct into the garden. (10)

Transplant the seedlings out once they have three to four true leaves. Transplanted plants will reach harvest age about two weeks earlier than direct seeded plants. This advice goes for all brassicas. (14) Kale likes well drained, fertile soil with near neutral pH and a sunny spot. Space the plants 30 – 45 cm apart. (10)

Brassica crops are quick growing so it is important that plants have immediate access to nutrients. (14) Kale, being a leafy vegetable, loves nitrogen. It also appreciates phosphorus. (6) So, chook poo or a sneaky outdoor pee when the plant is tall enough to avoid splashing the leaves. Hygiene!

Around here kale is not developing good deep root systems so it needs a bit of protection from nematodes. The advice is to grow another brassica crop beforehand and dig that it in for the nematodes to attack. Or cover the soil with marigold flowers (Tagetes spp.) or the weed stinking roger (Tagetes minuta) and lightly dig in, as this repels them. (6)

Transplants. The following applies to transplanting seedlings generally, and brassicas in particular.
Seedlings need to have been hardened off in full sunlight for at least a week before transplanting. Soft plants (plants that have not been hardened off) are the greatest cause of transplant losses.
Water them well before planting out. 

Transplant in the early morning or late evening and avoid planting out on hot or windy days.

Monitor the soil moisture. Adequate watering during the first few weeks after planting is critical for seedlings to establish and any water stress at this stage will affect their productive yield and quality. Most vegetables are shallow rooted and prone to water stress. (14)

Begin harvesting kale as soon as plants are large enough, after 4 – 6 weeks. Remove outer or lower leaves first by snapping them cleanly from the central stem. Leave behind at least 5 – 10 leaves to allow the plant to continue to grow. (15) 

To keep your plant able to create plenty of tasty leaves, fertilise regularly. Monthly is good. (3,10) And obviously keep it well watered.

As mentioned at the beginning, kale is a perennial. You will get at least two years of leafy goodness from it, and maybe more. (3,5,6) For the tall varieties, you can stake them neatly upright though it’s not necessary. Frequent picking of kale leaves is not only possible, it’s recommended. Keep picking to encourage more leaves to be grown and so you get to them before anyone else in the garden. Pick from the bottom leaves, moving up the stalk for a plant that lasts a long time. Don’t cut the stalk or snip off the central growing bud as this significantly slows the plant down in creating new leaves. (16) Be aware, the longer you pick kale the tougher the leaves get. The younger the plant, the more tender the leaves. (17)

After at least 2 years flowers will form and seeds will follow. Kale will cross with other brassicas. (18) Once a plant goes to seed, that’s usually the end of leaf creation. The plant switches to putting its energy into seeds for the next generation and stops making new leaves.

For your next kale planting, choose a different spot in the garden. Pests and plant-family specific diseases will build up over time if you keep planting the same thing in the same spot. Give the land a break between brassica crops for two or more years. (14)

Thank you!
Paul of Barefoot Fruit and Veg (https://www.facebook.com/Barefoot-Fruit-and-Veg-105335041132262/), Camilla of Autarky Farm (https://www.autarkyfarm.com.au/), The Mandarin Bend (https://themandarinbend.com/), Tim and Michele from Bellingen Seed Savers, Bufo, James, 

Supported by:

Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

1. Hill T. In a reply to my Facebook post to Bellingen Seed Savers Chatter. 2021. 

2. Butler C. Eat your kale. Washington Post [Internet]. 2012 Sep 24 [cited 2021 Jul 1]; Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/eat-your-kale/2012/09/24/95a4d756-018f-11e2-9367-4e1bafb958db_story.html

3. In conversation with Michele Morozumi on 16 June 2021. 

4. Morozumi M. In a reply to my Facebook post to Bellingen Seed Savers Chatter. 2021. 

5. In conversation with Camilla of Autarky Farm on 5 June 2021 [Internet]. Available from: https://www.autarkyfarm.com.au/

6. In conversation with Paul of Barefoot Fruit and Veg on 5 June 2021. 

7. How frost can make your veg even tastier | James Wong [Internet]. the Guardian. 2018 [cited 2021 Jul 1]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/nov/11/how-frost-can-make-your-veg-even-tastier

8. Urban Farmer Curtis Stone. CROP FOCUS: Winter Kale [Internet]. [cited 2021 Jul 1]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfC3QPtUkwk

9. Kale. In: Wikipedia [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Jul 1]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Kale&oldid=1022516714

10. Organic Vegetable Seeds Online – Jicama to Kohl Rabi [Internet]. Green Harvest. [cited 2021 Jun 29]. Available from: http://greenharvest.com.au/SeedOrganic/VegetableSeeds/JicamaToKohlrabi.html

11. Dipel factsheet [Internet]. [cited 2021 Jul 3]. Available from: http://www.herbiguide.com.au/Labels/BTGRAN_53431-101018.PDF

12. Caterpillar Organic Control Products Online [Internet]. Green Harvest. [cited 2021 Jul 3]. Available from: https://greenharvest.com.au/PestControlOrganic/CaterpillarControlProducts.html

13. A Veggie Gardener’s Guide to Cabbage Moths, Butterflies, and Caterpillars | The Seed Collection [Internet]. TheSeedCollection. [cited 2021 Jul 3]. Available from: https://www.theseedcollection.com.au/Cabbage-Moths-Butterflies-and-Caterpillars

14. Brassica information kit (2004). GROWING GUIDE: Brassica grower’s handbook. 2004;56. 

15. How to grow: Cabbages and kale [Internet]. SBS Food. 2012 [cited 2021 Jun 29]. Available from: https://www.sbs.com.au/food/article/2012/09/06/how-grow-cabbages-and-kale

16. Kale 101: Basic care and Harvesting tips – Our Green Thumb Community Garden [Internet]. Our Green Thumb Community Garden. [cited 2021 Jul 3]. Available from: https://sites.miis.edu/ourgreenthumb/2012/03/26/kale-101-basic-care-and-harvesting-tips/

17. Facebook post by The Mandarin Bend on their page on June 22 2021 [Internet]. Available from: https://www.facebook.com/themandarinbend/

18. Fanton M& J. The Seed Savers’ Handbook for Australia and New Zealand. The Seed Savers’ Network; 2008. 

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