Growing Kale From Seed
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I may not be holding true to my southern roots to admit it, but I greatly prefer kale to collards. In fact, kale is my favorite cool weather vegetable. And what’s not to love? Kale is easy to grow, productive, versatile, and an antioxidant rich super food. Whether you want to grow kale to harvest baby leaves for salads or to harvest mature leaves for soups and sautéing, now is the time to get started if you plan to grow your own plants from seed.
When most people think of kale they picture plants with curly edged, blue-green leaves. These standard types, which include ‘Winterbor’ and ‘Dwarf Blue Curled Vates’, are the most cold hardy varieties, capable of surviving outside without protection all winter in our region. They are also the types most often found for sale at garden centers as young plants to set out in your garden in September. While I think every fall garden should include some of these extra hardy types, there are other varieties of kale that are tastier and tenderer.
One of my favorite is ‘Red Russian’ kale, an heirloom variety with purple stems (shown above). It is commonly grown for baby leaves but is also delicious when allowed to grow to full size. The blue-green leaves of ‘Red Russian’ kale are smoother than other types, with deeply toothed edges and an extra tender texture. The plants tolerate light to moderate frost but young leaves can be burned when temperatures fall below the mid twenties. You can cover plants with frost protection cloth or a blanket to prevent this, but even if you don’t the plants will recover in a few days. I rarely cover ‘Red Russian’ kale in my garden in Burgaw, where it survives all winter with little care.
The deeply wrinkled leaves of ‘Toscano’ kale have also earned it the names lacinato and dinosaur kale .
‘Toscano’ is another excellent heirloom kale that thrives in fall and winter gardens. Coming to us from Italy, this variety is also known as lacinato, Tuscan, or dinosaur kale. Bearing deeply wrinkled, blue leaves with smooth edges, ‘Toscano’ kale is my absolute favorite for flavor and texture. It is the least hardy of the kales I have grown and is damaged by cold more often than ‘Red Russian’ in my garden. I try to cover these plants whenever temperatures dip below the mid twenties. When I forget, the leaves get burned but the plants always recover.
Though it’s not a type of kale, a highly recommend Spigarello to kale lovers. Sometimes referred to as leaf broccoli, this plant can be grown the same as kale, though you will definitely have to start it from seed as I have never seen plants for sale locally. I harvest and cook the leaves of Spigarello, which have sweeter, more broccoli-like flavor, the same way I do kale. After three to four months, the plant will produce small edible and delicious broccoli heads, similar to broccoli raab.
There are two methods of growing kale depending on how you plan to use the leaves. If you want young baby leaves for salads or juicing you will need to sow a new batch of seed every two to four weeks and harvest when the plants reach four to six inches tall. You can grow kale for baby leaves all year round, but you will notice a distinct difference in the taste of plants grown in warm weather versus those grown in cool weather. This is because frost changes the flavor of kale by increasing the sugar content of the leaves, making their flavor sweeter and richer.
Baby kale can be grown in the garden or in containers of potting soil. Depending on how much of a neat freak you are, you can either carefully sow seed every half inch in shallow furrows spaced three to four inches apart, or simply scatter them across the bed or container and cover them lightly with soil. Check the soil every day to make sure the seed bed is kept moist but there is no need to fertilize until the plants come up. Kale started in the summer months will greatly benefit from afternoon shade.
To grow kale plants for your winter garden, sow seed in early to mid August the same as you would for baby leaves. When seedlings reach two to three inches in height, transplant them into small containers of potting soil. Set young plants out in the garden in early September and begin harvesting leaves after the first frost.
Other vegetable seeds that can be started in August for a fall garden include broccoli, cauliflower, collards, cabbage, spinach, parsley, cilantro and lettuce.
If you cannot find the seed varieties you are looking for at local garden centers, try one of the many online seed companies. Here are some of my favorites:
- Johnny’s Seed: Flowers, vegetables, herbs, cover crops and excellent information! Request a catalog at http://www.johnnyseeds.com/
- Burpee Seed – one of the oldest in the country! http://www.burpee.com/
- Park Seed – located in Greenville, SC: http://parkseed.com/
- Seed Savers Exchange – dedicated to preserving heirloom varieties: http://www.seedsavers.org/
- Seeds of Change – specializing in organically produced seed:http://www.seedsofchange.com/
- Select Seeds – specializing in heirloom flowers: http://www.selectseeds.com/
- J.L. Hudson – No color picture but lots of interesting varieties – carries only open pollinated varieties (which means you can save your own seed and they will come true): http://www.jlhudsonseeds.net/
- Vegetable Planting Guide for Eastern NC:
- Growing Flowers and Vegetables from Seed: https://pender.ces.ncsu.edu/2014/03/growing-flowers-and-vegetables-from-seed/
Visit the Pender Extension website to stay up to date with all the latest gardening news.