In recent years kale has gained renown for being one of the healthiest vegetables around. While the fact that it’s reputation needed to be reanimated – it has a long history of cultivation dating back centuries, having been grown in Ancient Rome and Egypt and brought to the U.S. in the 1600s, but rather fell off the radar in the 20th century – it is fully deserved. It contains no fat, is very low in calories and has high levels of fiber that aids digestion. Kale also comes with good amounts of iron, antioxidants, and vitamins A, C and K. Not only that, but this leafy green is one of the best vegetable providers of calcium. With so many benefits, kale is a useful addition to anyone’s kitchen. Fortunately, the plant is also relatively simple to grow and can adapt to climate and soil conditions on most permaculture plots. In fact, kale is arguably the hardiest member of the plant family it belongs to – the brassicas, along with the likes of broccoli, cabbage and collards.
There are lots of different varieties of kale. Most are adaptable to many different types of location and climate, but you may want to ask local growers and garden centers which varieties grow well in your area. Different varieties have different numbers of days to maturity, which may affect your choice depending on your climate conditions and the time when winter in your location comes. Varieties such as Red Russian and Dwarf Blue Curled can mature in around 50 days after planting, while other varieties such as True Siberian and Red Ursa will be ready to harvest from about 70 days.
Kale is usually planted as a winter vegetable, for which you want to plant it out so that it matures in the cold weather. Exactly when this is will depend on the climatic conditions in your location, but will typically be sometime between July and September, with an earlier planting time for areas where winter comes early. You can plant earlier for a fall harvest, although the flavor of kale is enhanced by exposure to winter. You can plant seeds directly into the soil, but starting seeds off in the greenhouse or indoors in pots until they are 18 inches or so high can mean a better success rate of establishing plants in the garden. Plant individual specimens approximately 12 inches from each other. As companions, kale favors onions, beets and celery. Plants to avoid having in close proximity to kale include strawberries, beans and tomatoes. If you don’t have much garden space, you can grow kale in pots; just treat the soil as your would for specimens in garden beds, and make sure the plant has around 6 square inches of space to grow into.
Like most leafy green vegetables, kale prefers a well-drained soil that is enriched with a decent dose of organic abstract-21769_640matter. Loamy soil is the ideal kind, but the species can grow in sandy or heavy clay soils; such growing mediums will, however, affect the flavour of the crop. Kale favors a slightly acidic soil, ideally with a pH of between 5.5 and 6.8. If your soil is on the alkaline side, adding wood chips, sawdust from untreated wood or organic sulfur will help reduce it. Keeping the soil well nourished with organic compost will also help create good conditions for kale to grow in.
Kale likes its soil to be moist, so water regularly, especially during the post-planting stage. You may want to consider a drip irrigation system for your kale plants, as this will ensure a steady supply of moisture to the roots. Given the right conditions and a good supply of nutrients, kale should be able to resist most pests and diseases (particularly if planted in a biodiverse permaculture plot near beneficial companion plants). Keep an eye out for any damaged or weathered leaves and pick off to keep the rest of the plant growing robustly.
The flavor of kale is enhanced by frost, so avoid harvesting until your permaculture plot has experienced a frost or two. Indeed, the plant will hold up well even if the ground is covered in snow. The colder temperatures are what transforms that starches in the vegetable into natural sugars and so gives flavor. Typically you can begin harvesting once the plant reaches between 8 and 10 inches in height (the time to harvest will depend on the variety you used and whether it was grown from seed or seedling). Cut off leaves as required from the outside of the plant, leaving the central development bud in place to continue production. You can also harvest an entire plant if you wish. If you cut off at the stalk around 2 inches above soil level, the rootstock should begin to reshoot within two weeks.
Like most fruits and vegetables, kale is best used soon after picking. That is when it will have maximum flavor and nutrient content. However, sometimes it is not possible to just pick what you need from a crop (and you will want to pick the leaves before they start to turn brown later in the growing season – if you can’t use them, add any brown leaves to the compost pile so the nutrients are not wasted). If you have to harvest more than can be utilized immediately, you can store the extra leaves in an unsealed bag in the crisper section of the refrigerator for about a week.
Before you use kale in the kitchen rinse it well to remove any grit. Young, tender leaves can be used raw in salads or added to juices, but on the whole kale is best used cooked. Remove the thick stalk from mature leaves and use the green parts. Kale can be used in any recipe as a replacement for spinach or chard, working well as an addition to stews, soups and casseroles. Steaming or stir-frying the leaves means they retain more of their nutrients.