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How to Grow Kale in the Home Garden

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Kale was such a “trendy” vegetable a few years ago that many people have strong feelings about it. Most have a love it or hate it view of kale, but it really is a nutritional powerhouse that’s easy to grow in the home vegetable garden.

How to grow kale in the garden or containers

Why You Should Grow Kale

These leafy greens are super versatile. In the home vegetable garden, kale is a hardy vegetable that does well in most climates and can tolerate full sun or partial shade. The kale plant grows best during spring and fall, but can survive cold winter weather as well.

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Kale has some advantages over other favorite fall greens like spinach or lettuce, which become bitter in cold temperatures and bolt (go to seed) as soon as it gets warm.

Kale can be harvested in the heat of summer and is slower to go bitter, so kale will provide an excellent crop for a longer period than other fall greens which are more suited for spring or early autumn harvests.

Whether you’re planning to plant kale seeds or purchase kale seedlings,here are several varieties of kale that are perfect to grow in the home vegetable garden.

The most popular kale varieties for home gardens include:

  • Russian Kale (Red or White)– Wonderful harvested small or full grown, this variety of kale comes in red or white and both are delicous!
  • Siberian Kale- Bright green and leafy, this variety of kale can be grown in any zone and even through the winter in milder zones.
  • Blue Scotch Kale- A curly leaf kale variety, blue scotch is very cold hardy but will bolt quickly in hot temperatures.
  • Lacinato (Dinosaur Kale or Tuscan Kale)– One of my favorite varieties, this kale has large, bumpy leaves which can be continuously harvested while the plant continues to grow.

When and Where to Plant Kale

Kale grows best in cool temperatures like the early spring and fall. It is possible to grow kale plants when the temps get up into the 80’s but it will require more attention to watering. (For summer kale, consider a place with part shade.) For spring harvests, the best time to plant kale is as soon as the soil is workable and for fall harvests, plant kale in late summer.

Kale prefers acidic soils with a pH between 5 and 7 in order to provide the best growing conditions for kale plants. If your soil is already too alkaline, you can add aluminum sulfate (garden lime) to help lower its acidity level so kale will thrive. Keep in mind that kale grown in soil with a higher pH level will be more bitter.

It’s also important to note where kale plants are going to live because kale prefers sandy well-drained soil rich in organic matter, which doesn’t retain too much water. If you have clay-like soils, it might be better to choose another type of plant or consider planting the kale in containers or raised beds. Container-grown kale makes the soil easy to amend and control, but check out my post on how to grow kale in pots for more information about that.

Kale can be grown from either plants or seeds, both methods are easy. Using seedlings or young kale plants will obviously result in a quicker harvest, but planting seeds means you have a larger variety of kale to choose from. 

Russian red kale seedlings
Russian Red Kale Seedlings

Watering Kale Plants

Once kale is planted, either by seed or seedling, keeping them watered is important. It’s best to water kale plants, like many vegetables, early in the morning. This gives kale plants time to dry before nightfall and reduces the risk of fungal diseases.

Water kale throughout its growing season with between 1 and 1 1/2 inches per week. It’s important not to over water kale or allow them to sit in a pool of stagnant water because this could lead to root rot issues. Moist soil is great, but overly wet soil leads to complications.

As with most vegetables, less watering will be required in the fall and winter, but you still want to assess if your plant is receiving enough water. The best way is to check soil moisture to see if your kale is getting enough water is by using the finger tip test. Push your fingertip into the soil an inch or so, if your finger feels moist from the soil, then there’s no need to water. If your finger comes back dry, then it’s time to water.

For consistent watering of any type of crop in the garden, I like to use a flat soaker hose or a the garden grid system from Garden in Minutes. These are consistent methods of watering that make my life as a gardener much easier, and it gives my plants consistent watering that they need in order to thrive. (See my full post about the Garden Watering Systems I like best.)

Fertilizing Kale Plants

To start, use a good all around fertilizer to mix into the soil prior to planting kale. You can also amend the soil with compost from your own compost pile. (Learn How to Start Composting today!)

This organic fertilizer should consist of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (aka the three numbers on commercial fertilizers). I personally like using Espoma’s Garden Tone fertilizer, but there are other good ones out there, too. Be careful to avoid getting plant food on the lower leaves of the plant; instead, try to get the fertilizer directly on the soil around the plant.

To be certain a balanced fertilizer is what your kale plants need, consider a getting a soil test done. This will let you know if your soil is abundant in a specific nutrient already, and you can choose your fertilizer accordingly. It’s much better to be informed about your soil and choose the right fertilizer than to guess and be disappointed at not getting the results you want.

Kale Plant Maintenance

Once kale plants are established, they will require very little care. Yipee!

Add a layer of mulch on the soil surface around the young plants to help retain moisture and keep the soil cooler in warm weather during summer months. Kale is also like most other greens – it prefers moist (but not wet) soil conditions.

For early spring planting where frosts may still be hanging around, consider using a light row cover. Even though kale is very cold hardy and will survive a light frost, this extra layer of protection is good in colder areas. This row cover will protect the young leaves from early pests as well.

Snip off any kale leaves that are discolored or turn yellow. Also be on the lookout for holes in leaves and any other type of damage; these of course are indicators for pests and disease.

For growing kale in the winter garden, consider a cold frame for your kale plants. This will give them a warmer area to grow in while snow is on the ground, but still give you a chance for hearty winter harvests. (Here are my instructions for how to build a cold frame from old windows.)

Common Kale Pests

Kale is a member of the cabbage family, so it tends to have many of the same pests as cabbage and broccoli. I use natural pest prevention and control methods in the garden, and if you’re interested in keeping your garden free from harsh chemicals, check out my book Natural Pest Control for the Home Garden. It’s a helpful resource for those looking to have a kid and pollinator-safe garden.

Here are common pests that enjoy kale as much as you do:

  • Cabbage worms- White moths with a single black dot on the wing are the first indication you’ll be seeing cabbage worms. See my full post on how to get rid of cabbage worms.
  • White flies- These tiny flies are annoying and tend to reside on the underside of the leaves. A homemade insecticidal soap works well to combat these pests.
  • Cabbage aphids- Aphids can be a constant source of irritation for gardeners, and kale doesn’t get a pass. See my full article on How to Get Rid of Aphids for several methods to use without resorting to chemical pesticides.

Common Kale Diseases

While kale is a low-maintenance plant, it can still have some disease issues. Here are those most commonly found in kale:

  • Downy mildew- You’ll notice white patches on the mature kale leaves, and this is typically a result of poor ventilation around the plant or this plant in contact with another with downy mildew. Trim off the affected leaves and discard. Water plants at the base and clear out and harvest leaves as they become mature to help keep leaves well ventilated. Also avoid planting other cruciferous vegetables in the same place if downy mildew has been an issue.
  • Bacterial Leaf Spot- As the name indicates, this is a bacterial issue, not a fungus. Brown spots may appear on the ends of the leaves and they may look generally unhealthy. See this article for ways to prevent bacterial leaf spot.

How to Harvest Kale

There are a few ways kale can be harvested. Harvest baby kale by cutting the leaves off about one inch above ground level with sharp scissors or pruning shears. You can also harvest baby kale when you thin out seedlings from your kale bed.

Harvest kale leaves when they reach desired size, larger for kale chips and smaller for salads and smoothies. The kale should snap off when pulled, rather than bend at the base of the stem. Harvest the larger, lower leaves first, leaving the newer tender leaves closer to the interior of the plant to continue to grow.

When kale plants reach two feet high or more, or are exposed to very warm temperatures, they can produce flower stalks with small yellow blossoms that are edible as well! Just like other brassicas, kale is a great source of vitamins A, C and K. Flowers do usually indicate that the plant is going to seed (due to hot weather or simply timing), so consider this as well, and plan to save seeds if you can.

Like many other brassicas, kale also has a better flavor after being exposed to frost so you can enjoy kale well past the first fall frosts!

Storing Kale Leaves

How should you store kale if you’ve harvested more kale than you can use for one meal? Store fresh kale leaves by wrapping them in a paper towel and then placing them inside of an airtight plastic or silicone bag. Store kale like this for up to one week. It can also be chopped ahead of time and placed in a container with a folded paper towel for quick additions to soups, smoothies, and salads.

For long term storage, blanch kale leaves whole before freezing in an airtight freezer bag or container. These are perfect to add to soups and smoothies in months when fresh kale isn’t available. If you’re interested in learning how to preserve your harvests by freezing, grab a copy of my ebook Quick and Easy Freezer Preserving to learn how to freeze many types of vegetables, fruits, and herbs to use all year long.

Need some recipe ideas for all of that kale? Check out these suggestions:

kale berry salad
Kale Berry Salad

Have tips for growing kale? Share them below for everyone to enjoy. Gardeners are always learning!