Kale growing - Kale how to grow, tips, varieties, cooking.

Did you ever eat Colcannon, made from lovely pickled cream?
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream.
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the melting flake
Of the creamy, flavoured butter that your mother used to make?

Yes you did, so you did, so did he and so did I.
And the more I think about it, sure, the nearer I’m to cry.
Oh, wasn’t it the happy days when troubles we had not,
And our mothers made Colcannon in the little skillet pot.
Colcannon (The Skillet Pot) Traditional Irish song

I’m sure there are many of you out there reading this that have enjoy a plate or two of steaming Colcannon over the autumns and winters past. But how many of you have had it made with its original green ingredient kale, rather than that Johnny-come-lately cabbage?

Why old time kale and not cabbage? “Well, before we had cabbage, we had kale, and do you know what, it’s a much tougher ould devil and puts up with a poor gardener”, that’s what one elderly grower told me.

Common names:
Kale, borecole, black cabbage, collards, farmer’s cabbage, frost proof cabbage, curly kale, green cabbage, German greens, rape kale, Scotch kale, and wild cabbage

Botanical name:
Brassica oleracea acephala

Area of origin:

Brief description:
Although a member of the cabbage family our kale never forms a head like cabbage itself or its other relative cauliflower. Leaves on the plant remain as leaves, never forming a head even at the very centre of the plant. Kale usually takes the form of crowded leaves, which overlap one another.

It all depends on the variety but their leaves can be smooth, frilled or crinkly, coloured bluey-grey, purple, or green to a dark green that appears almost black. Scotch kales varieties for example will produce frilled and curled leaves similar to that of curled parsley. Again it all depends on the variety but plants usually stand 1 ½ -2ft (45-60cm) high as dwarfs and up to 3 ½ ft (105cm) as taller specimens.

Are they easy or hard to grow:
Kale is really easy to grow. Unlike other members of the cabbage family (brassicas) it tolerates a wide variety of soils and is resistant to pests, diseases and frost. I recommend it for all new growers.

Varieties suitable to grow in Ireland:
Nero de Toscana or Black Tuscany (dark green almost black colouration, straplike deeply wrinkled leaves, ideal for adding texture and a peppery flavour)

Dwarf Green Curled (very hardy, has the ability to grow in locations that other vegetables would fail as it tolerates wind and poorly drained soils, compact plants at 1 ½ -2ft (45-60cm) with dense curly leaves)

Scarlet (Inject some colour into your veg garden with these purple to crimson leaved kale plants, their curled leaves are ideal for adding texture to any dish, very hardy)

Red Russian (frilled green leaves with a purple midrib, as baby leaves these look great in salads and add a fresh texture to a normally limp salad)

Irish stock.

UK stock.

When to grow:
Normally kale can be sown from April to late-June. You can even sow in March provided it is under cloches, frames or fleece. For all varieties it’s a good idea to make successional sowings, allowing you harvest continually while the veg is young and tender.

Where to grow, and soil conditions required:
Kale will grow in almost all conditions. Although it can tolerate shade it will of course do much better in a sunny spot. Shelter is also beneficial. For a really good harvest you should try to avoid growing in soil that becomes waterlogged or conversely dries out rapidly.

Relative acidity or alkalinity (Ph) required:
Kale doesn’t grow very well in a strongly acid or strongly alkaline soil. This is because most essential vegetable nutrients in the soil are soluble and available for use at pH levels of 5.5 to 7.5 (slightly acid to neutral). Most vegetables grow best within this range, as is the case with kale where 7.0 is about optimum.

If the pH (relative acidity or alkalinity) of your soil is not suited to the vegetable, then soil nutrients such as Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, iron, boron, copper, manganese and zinc start to become unavailable, leading to poor crops. You can use a simple home soil test available through ebay or most garden centres to determine your soils ph. By taking account of the test results you can then decide how much if any amendments are required to bring the to pH of your vegetable garden soil in line.

The application of ground lime will be helpful in countering the excessive acidity. As a rough rule of thumb, an application of 250g of ground lime per metre squared the autumn before planting/sowing will commonly increase your ph by about one point. However as lime is available in different formulations and soil types vary, I advise also consulting the rates set out on the pack.

If you need to decrease your ph to make the soil more acid, then you can apply sulphate of iron at a rate of 100g per metre squared for each drop in ph point. Apply this product according to the manufacturers instructions and heed safety warnings especially those concerning the use of protective clothing and equipment. An application of 2 inches of peat moss worked in to a spades depth all over the proposed growing area will also go a good way towards dropping your soil by one ph point.

Food reserves required:
For long term feeding of your crop, every 10m2 of growing area should have one wheelbarrow load of well-rotted homemade compost or farmyard animal manure spread over its surface sometime during the autumn/early winter before planting/sowing. Dig this in to a spades depth all over the proposed growing area to enrich it for your crop. Whilst digging, remove any stones and other obstacles that might cause the roots to become malformed.

As a rule of thumb, well-rotted manure/compost will be over six months old, and tend to be dark brown will little if any smell. You should not be able to distinguish individual pieces of straw, hay, vegetable peelings, grass etc., as it will all be rotted down.

A week or two before sowing your seed should lightly rake a well-balanced fertilizer into your growing area followed by lightly treading the soil. Growmore or fish blood and bone (organic option) are both suitable for this purpose. Apply according to the rates on the pack.

How to plant or sow:
In your weed-free and lightly raked growing area you must create a ½ inch (1cm) deep drill/trench with the tip of your trowel. Ideally you should sow the seed thinly along the drill. Just ensure you have at least a seed ever 2 or 3 inches. This reduces the amount of thinning required and consequently reduces the risk of attack by cabbage root fly.

Create as many drills as you like at 6-inch (15cm) intervals. Any seed not required for sowing that year should be kept dry as it has a life expectancy of 4 years.

The expected seed germination time is approx 10 days. Its time for thinning when your seedlings have produced true leaves, those which are the first set of leaves that emerge after the original germination leaves. Thin them to leave a single plant at each 3-inch interval, then water the crop well afterwards. If you have space in your garden you can replant some of the thinnings as a bonus.

The above-mentioned seed and drill spacing assumes that you will transplant your kale plants once they outgrow the seedling stage. The main reason for transplanting kale is to encourage it to form a sturdy root system and aid against wind-rock. If seedlings are left to grow where the seed is sown, the kale leaf may also be of poor density.

However if these risks don’t bother you, then kale seed can be sown in the position they are to crop without the need for transplanting. As you will not be transplanting, your seed sowing drills in this instance should be 18in inches (45cm) inches apart.
Three seeds can be sown in a cluster 1 inch apart at each growing position (every 18 inches (45cm) along the drill/trench). These are then thinned to one plant at each station when your seedlings have produced true leaves. They are then left to grow on where they have been sown. Rape kale varieties are normally sown like this, without transplantation.

If transplanting, the young plants should be ready for transplantation when they are between 6 –9 inches high (15-22cm), with about 6 leaves. Water the ground deeply around the young plants the day before you intend to move them, as this will prevent damage and shock to them.

The transplants new growing bed should have been prepared sometime during the autumn/early winter before sowing, in the way as described earlier in this guide. Ensure that the soil is quite firm to allow steady kale leaf growth.

Dibber, photo / pic / image.

Dibber, photo / pic / image.

To transplant you can use a dibber. This is usually a plastic, metal or wooden hand tool, 6-inches long with a pointed tip; primarily used to make holes in soil for planting and transplanting seedlings, bulbs etc. You can buy one of these or take the frugal option and whittle one out of a broken broom handle or better still an old garden fork or spade shaft (complete with T or D handle).

With your dibber make rows of 4-inch deep holes in the transplanting area at 18 inches (45cm) inches apart. Allow 18 inches (45cm) also between each of the plant rows. Then from your seedbed, lift out the young kale plants with a trowel or hand-fork retaining as much soil around the roots as possible. The plants can be kept damp throughout the time it takes to plant them by lightly wrapping bunches of them in damp sacking or wet newspaper.

Pop each transplant into the prepared hole, and don’t worry that you are planting them too deep. Plant the seedlings firmly, after which they should be well watered taking great care not to disturb the roots. The 4-inch deep holes will often swallow the plant up to its first leaves but that will solve the problem of leggy wind-rocked stems.

The dibber can be pushed into the soil at points an inch or two from the transplant hole, then used as a lever to close the soil around the plant. You can also firm around the plants with your fingers. Water well each individual plant directly after transplantation to help prevent shock.

This planting method is also the one you will adopt if you wish to sow kale from plants rather than seed. Where someone else grows the young kale plants for you. These plants are readily available in most good garden centres and save you tying up a piece of ground for raising the seedlings.

Caring for your crop:
Keep the soil around the kale weed-free. Take care when weeding because the roots are easily damaged. Remove any yellow leaves or those badly damaged by caterpillar or slug attack as you go. Keep an eye on the plants over autumn and winter, firming the plants down if lifted by frost or pulling some soil up around the stems to help prevent against wind rock as needed.

Do not allow the plants to dry out as this will result in plant bolting. A mulch of some form helps preserve soil moisture, for example herbicide-free grass clippings.

During a prolonged spell without rain (week or more) you should water gently but deeply once a week. As a rough rule of thumb apply approx 10 litres per metre squared of soil area. Carry out this watering in the morning and try to avoid splashing the leaves, watering the soil instead.

In the run up to windy winter you may have to stake taller varieties to prevent wind-rock. Many gardeners will also mound the soil at the plants base slightly higher up the plant to prevent wind-rock also.

Pests and Diseases:
After sowing provide protection against birds especially if pigeons are a problem in your area. Bird protection should be provided in the form of netting should be used. Fine netting will also prevent butterflies laying their eggs on your crop, which prevents caterpillar damage.

The fungal disease clubroot is a serious ailment of cabbage and can affect kale as well, displaying itself as yellow wilting leaves and stunting of growth. With clubroot the plants roots also become stumpy and swollen, often developing wet rot. To avoid make sure the soil is well drained, the soil Ph rules are followed (mentioned earlier), and members of the cabbage family (brassicas) are only grown in the same location every one-year in three.

Other occasional troubles of kale include…
Black rot
Boron deficiency
Cabbage root fly
Chafer grubs
Diamond-back moth
Downy mildew
Flea beetle
Gall weevil
Leaf spot AKA ring spot
Magnesium deficiency
Manganese deficiency
Mealy aphid
Slugs & snails
Swede Midge
White blister AKA White rust
Wire stem
Yellows virus

Harvesting, when and how:
Harvest your kale as and when you need it, leaving the rest in the soil until you require it. You can cut off individual leaves with a sharp knife or else cut off the entire plant from its base should you be cooking for a large group. The main benefit of just removing individual leaves is that you stimulate the development of fresh new growth, a sort of cut-and-come-again system.

Young leaves 4-5in (10-12cm) long are the most palatable. Mature shoots end up bitter when cooked and simply remind me of cattle food. Any incidences of frost whilst your kale is still in the ground will only increase its crisp texture by wrinkling it further, and that’s to be welcomed.

For short-term storage (one to two weeks), place kale leaves in the salad crisper compartment of your refrigerator.

To long-term store, chop coarsely, boil for one minute, remove and place under cold water, then freeze in plastic bags. This will allows you to store cabbage for approx 10 to 12 months.

However, to be quite honest I find storing kale to be a waste, as the plant can actually sit within your soil until needed. You can leave it in the ground over most winters as they will tolerate a moderate frost (-2° to -5 ° Celsius). Left in the ground it can be used when required.

Kale can be substituted for cabbage in most food preparations. For example colcannon, our traditional Irish dish which combines mashed potatoes and kale or cabbage) with scallions, butter, salt and pepper added.

You can go traditional colcannon route, but if you would like something different why not try some of the following….

Cut your kale into strips and steam or boil lightly. This will cook the kale fast and evenly, thus avoiding the soggy cabbage-like vegetable that turns so many people off. Serve alongside boiled bacon and potatoes mashed with little melted butter and/or cream.

Cooked kale and mashed potatoes can be sautéed (shallow fried) together. Why not try braising chopped kale with butter in a heavy-bottomed pan. Just at the end of cooking toss a few caraway seeds over it, then serve. Or after boiling perhaps toss in an oil and vinegar dressing, and then chill to serve with cold ham or other meats.

You can even go Italian and steam your kale leaves until tender, then in the last minute or two of cooking add a dash of olive oil, some crushed garlic, breadcrumbs, and a grating of Parmesan cheese.

Strips of kale can also be introduced to a stir-fry near the end of cooking, adding bite and flavour.

More debate about this topic on our forum,
click The Irish gardeners forum.


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