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How to Grow Organic Kale

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Kale is a favorite cool-weather crop among many gardeners. Not only is it nutritious, versatile, and delicious, but it is stately enough to make a real impact in the garden as well.

Kale can be grown in all climate zones, and, if you live in zone 6 or higher, you may be able to overwinter your kale for an early spring crop as well.

Where to Grow Kale

Kale grows best in full sun but will also do well in part-shade. Just be sure it has at least four hours of sun per day. It requires fertile, well-drained soil. It's a good idea to amend your soil with a good amount of compost before planting kale.

You can grow kale in traditional garden beds, raised beds, or containers. If you decide to grow in a container, make sure that the container is at least ten inches deep and that you give the plants plenty of room to grow. You can also add kale to ornamental beds; the blue-green leaves of 'Lacinato' or the light magenta stalks and veins of 'Red Russian' add plenty of beauty to a flower bed.

Planting Kale

You can direct sow kale seeds in your garden 4 to 6 weeks before your last spring frost date, or start seeds indoors 4 weeks before your last frost, and transplant near your last spring frost date. Plants mature in 50 to 65 days, depending on variety, but you can also pick leaves much sooner -- small, tender kale leaves can even be eaten raw in salads.

For a fall crop, direct so seeds six to eight weeks before your first fall frost date.

Kale seeds should be planted 1/2 inch deep and 12 to 15 inches apart. Once your seeds have germinated, give the area a good 2 to 3 inch layer of mulch to help retain soil moisture.

Growing Organic Kale

Kale is actually pretty easy to grow once it's established. Be sure your plants get at least one inch of water per week, either from rain or the hose. Fertilize kale once a month with fish emulsion or compost tea.

Pests and Diseases

The most common pest when you're growing kale is the cabbage worm. These small green worms are the larvae of the Cabbage White butterfly, and will eat holes in the leaves of your kale, sometimes at an alarming rate. To control cabbage worms, pick them off by hand and squish them, or use Bt if you have a large infestation. It's also a great idea to keep your kale covered with a floating row cover to eliminate the problem completely.

The other problem with kale is that the leaves toughen the older they get. Try to harvest young leaves that are smaller than 12 inches. The best way to ensure plenty of tender kale leaves is to harvest regularly; the plant will keep producing new leaves from its center.

Recommended Varieties

Here are some popular kale varieties:

  • 'Red Russian' has a grayish-green tint to the leaves, with light purplish stalks and veins. This delicious variety is very good sauteed or steamed, but even better when harvested small and added raw to green salads.
  • 'Lacinato' is also known as "dinosaur kale" because of its dark green, bumpy texture. It is extremely hardy -- I have overwintered this in my garden with zero protection several times. The leaves can be very tough if they're too large, so this is a good one to harvest regularly for small, tender leaves.
  • 'Winterbor' is a curly kale variety with deep green, ruffled leaves. Very, very hardy.
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