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From the Ground Up: All about growing kale with Linn County Master Gardeners

The Gazette

Lacinato kale (front), green kale (middle), and red kale (back) grow in rows in 2017 at Grinnell Heritage Farm in Grinnell. It is not too late to plant kale now for a fall harvest. The vegetable is easy to grow and rich in nutrients, including vitamins A and C.
The Gazette Lacinato kale (front), green kale (middle), and red kale (back) grow in rows in 2017 at Grinnell Heritage Farm in Grinnell. It is not too late to plant kale now for a fall harvest. The vegetable is easy to grow and rich in nutrients, including vitamins A and C.

In recent years kale has become popularly known as a super food. Well, I am here to tell you all about growing kale in your home garden.

Kale is a hardy cool-season green that is part of the cabbage family, along with broccoli, cauliflower and collards. It is easy to grow and rich in nutrients, especially vitamins A and C. As a cool-season crop, it grows best in the spring and fall. It tolerates fall frosts. In fact, a frost often makes kale taste sweeter. We have had kale plants survive winter in Iowa and start growing again early in the spring as the weather begins to warm.

Kale can be planted most any time, from early spring through summer. If planted late in the summer, kale can be harvested until the ground freezes in winter. Kale can be planted as seeds or as transplants. Seeds germinate rather quickly when planted 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep in well-drained, light soil. After about two weeks of growth, the seedlings should be thinned to 8 to 12 inches apart. If doing transplants, start seeds indoors about four weeks before transplanting time. Remember, kale can be planted early spring as soon as the soil is workable.

Water regularly if it doesn’t rain — most plants thrive on about 1 inch of rain per week. As with many other plants, be careful not to overwater, which may cause the roots to rot. The best quality kale results from fast growth without heat or moisture stress. If the plants are overheated or struggling to take up water, they will produce chemicals resulting in a pungent or bitter flavor.

The most common problem growing kale in my garden has been the pesky cabbage worm, which also likes to munch on kale and broccoli as well as cabbage. Hand picking seems to work as one method to control for those who don’t like to use any kind of pesticides.

Kale is ready to harvest when the leaves are about the size of your hand. Pick the lower leaves first, being sure not to pick the terminal bud, which is found on the top of the plant. It is this terminal bud that helps keep the plant productive. Kale will continue to grow well into the late fall. The season can even be extended by protecting kale plants with a row cover.

Kale can be stored as any other leafy green; put it in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator. It should last about one week.

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Wash well before using. I like to actually soak mine in mild salt water for 30 minutes or so to help insure the removal of any potential small cabbage worms or other insects.

Kale can be enjoyed cooked or uncooked — most of the same ways one enjoys spinach. Our family has especially enjoyed it in a variety of salads, soups, casseroles, as kale chips, or thrown into a smoothie for added nutrition. Always be sure to cut out the tough spine of the kale leaf, which is too tough to enjoy. If using in a salad, lightly massaging the kale with a bit of salt enhances both the appearance and flavor of kale. Kale also can be successfully frozen to be cooked in soups or casseroles throughout the winter months.

So, if you haven’t already grown kale, plan to add it to your home garden. In fact, it is not too late to plant now for a fall harvest. Simply plant, grow and enjoy.

• For gardening questions, call the Linn County Extension Master Gardener Hortline at (319) 447-0647.

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