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In reality, kale is easy to prepare in anything from baby greens salads to tasty sautés and much more. Plus, delicious, nutritious kale is an easy-to-grow and very generous garden crop. Just a few plants will supplement a household diet for months on end. And, they’re quite beautiful integrated into mixed borders filled with flowers or other foliage plants.
Begin by selecting a variety of kale that grows well in your area and that has a form and color complimenting your garden. Red Winter kale, a deeply lobed, grey-green leaf with red-purple margins, is a fantastic variety that is both slow to bolt and can withstand several days of freezing temperatures. Perhaps one of the most flavorful selections is Lacinato or Dinosaur kale, which grows tall with rounded, crinkled, dark grey-green leaves. Although tough in winter, it isn’t quite as cold hardy as the Red Winter selection. And, these aren’t the only choices available. Deep purple leaves, traditional ruffled green and others are available from seed and start vendors.
Keep in mind that kale is a known as a cool season crop. This means it is seeded in mid-to-late winter and planted into the garden after the last hard frost, or it is seeded in summer to plant into the garden before the first fall frosts.
If you choose to grow kale from seed, be patient with its long germination period. In colder climates, start your seeds indoors under lights as early as February. Once the seedlings emerge and form true leaves, which follow the first pair of leaves you see on emerging plants, you will be ready to divide crowded seedlings into slightly larger pots. Continue to grow the plants in a protected spot, fertilizing as needed. Before you move the plants into the garden beds, be sure to harden them off slowly to prepare them for the harsher outdoor environment.
When your kale is ready to go into the garden, plant individual starts at least 18”-24” apart. Although your seedlings are small, these plants grow quite large during their long growing season. Covering the young plants with row cover (aka horticultural fleece) at this stage will help protect plants from any heavy rain or hail storms. Too, it will help hold in heat, which encourages plant growth. Plus, flying pests like cabbage butterfly won’t be able to get to your plants, which is their hungry caterpillar babies’ preferred food. Flea beetle and other pests that like kale and other brassica crops may require other treatment. Watch your crops carefully in order to manage any pest or disease problem right away.
Once your kale has grown in the ground for a few weeks, you should be able to begin enjoying meals from it. Tender leaves on young plants and softer leaves in mild, summer temperatures are fantastic torn up into salads. Once leaves become tougher as plants age and temperatures become harsher, cooking is the way bring out kale’s sweetness.
To harvest kale and keep the crop producing for months on end, use a sharp tool like the knife edge on the Fiskars Softgrip Garden Multi-snip to cut away a few of the lower leaves on each plant. Always remove no more than about a quarter of the leaves from each plant at each harvest. And, always remove bottom leaves, not top leaves. New growth emerges from the top, so leaving that intact and leaving several leaves on the plant will allow it to keep growing. If a flower bud forms at the top of the plant, pinch that bud out. This will encourage the plant to produce more leaves and no seeds. If you choose to let the plant bloom, know that the leaves will become bitter. However, bees will readily flock to the flowers. And, once the bees pollinate the flowers, seeds will form for you to plant in the years ahead.
This simple, flavorful, vitamin-rich sauté makes for a quick side dish that goes great with anything from mac ‘n cheese to steak and potatoes. And, if tomatoes are out of season, just omit them.
1 bunch fresh kale (10-18 leaves)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
_ teaspoon chili flakes (optional)
1 Tablespoon water*
1-2 teaspoons low sodium soy sauce
1 tomato, cut into wedges (optional)
Remove the tough midrib of each kale leaf by tearing the leaf upwards from the base of the midrib. (I find this much easier than using a knife.) Tear each leaf piece into pieces about 3” square. Wash and spin in salad spinner. Set aside.
In large sauté pan or wok, heat olive oil. Add minced garlic and chili flakes. Sauté briefly until garlic loses sharpness.
Add kale by fistfuls and toss to coat and wilt. Continue adding torn leaves and tossing over medium heat until kale begins to wilt to desired texture. Ideally, the kale will be slightly chewy and still brightly colored.
*If kale is very tough, you may wish to add 1 Tablespoon of water. Then cover pan briefly to steam and wilt kale. Once wilted, remove lid.
Sprinkle on just enough soy sauce to taste. Toss.
Add in tomatoes. Toss to warm.
Serves two as side dish.