Kale has come to the forefront in the last decade or two as the ultimate leafy-green health food, which is both nutritious and high in fiber. Maybe it is because there are so many varieties of kale. And many of these are associated with different Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and European cultures.
Kale can be used as a vegetable, an ornamental, or better yet, both. Although the typical ornamental kale that you might buy in a garden center is edible, it does not have the flavor of the culinary kales that are also highly ornamental in their color and texture. Kale is used in stir-fries, soups, winter salads, and even made into tasty chips.
Kale is one of our more cold hardy vegetables and can be grown and harvested through the winter months here in South Carolina. The flavor is enhanced after the first frost, and the leaves are hardy to 20 °F. Even if the leaves get scorched, the plants will send out new leaves during winter warm spells and early spring. It can be direct sown in the garden in August and September or can be started as transplants and will grow well when temperatures stay above 50 °F. Kale will survive into the summer months, but the leaves become strong and tough with the heat.
Kale needs plenty of sun, at least six hours. It also needs soils that are fertile and well-drained. It responds well to regular watering. It can be grown in the vegetable garden, in raised beds, in containers, or as an addition to the winter landscape as an edible ornamental. Seed should be sowed ¼ to ½ inch deep and spaced 12 to 18 inches apart, depending on the variety you are growing. Seeds will germinate with soil temperatures between 40 and 85 °F. With that being said, you can also grow baby kale for salads by planting very densely and sowing new seeds every few weeks for a continuous harvest of tender baby greens. Unless you are growing baby kale, the older, lower leaves are continuously harvested, leaving the new growth alone except for the occasional harvesting of young leaves for salad. A few of the more common varieties are described below.
Tuscan Kale – also called lacinato, palm tree, dinosaur, or Tuscano kale, is a beautiful blue-gray variety with narrow, strap-like, puckered leaves. The leaves grow very upright and therefore stay relatively free of dirt, making rinsing easy. It is a popular Italian variety used in soups and stews and is frequently recommended as one of the best for making kale chips. The color, texture, and growth habit are dramatic and will combine well with yellow or blue pansies in a container garden.
Red Russian & Siberian Kale – are different species that are not true kales but are grown and treated as such. They have broad, lobed leaves with red veins and leaf stalks. Popular, tender kale that is used in stir-fries or salads. Siberian is the most cold-hardy.
Redbor – a vigorous hybrid kale with ruffled, deep maroon leaves. Can grow four to five feet tall in a good year. It is used as a salad green and in stir-fries. A frost sweetens the leaves, and they darken to nearly black.
Vates Blue Curled – a very popular northern variety because of its cold-hardiness, this kale performs well here also. Blue-green and ruffled leaves with a fine texture on plants that grow to 18 inches tall. As with all curled kales, it is hard to rinse leaves. Used for stir-fries, salads, and chips.
Winterbor – similar to Vates, but with bright green new leaves that turn blue with age and slightly less curly. It is slow to bolt (flower) in the spring allowing for a longer harvest.
For more information on growing kale and some other leafy greens, see HGIC 1329, Arugula, Kale, Mesclun, Mustard, and Swiss Chard.