Thursday, March 7, 2013

Episode 7: Wherein Organigirl Shows You How to Simply Grow Kale

Russian Red Kale

Maybe it's just me, but I've found that most of the time when I'm growing something, I just want to grow that something without a hassle. I don't want to spend hours tweaking it to make it perfect, I just want to plant a seed, watch it grow with as little effort on my part as possible, and then eat the results. I'm sure there are gardeners out there who like perfection and get excited to see that perfect tomato or flawless carrot, and I can understand their motivations, however, perfection isn't any part of my own veggie garden goals. You see, I want to eat things. Lots of different kinds of things. Things that aren't covered in pesticides. Things that I can pick right from my backyard. Minimal effort.

It's because of my high and lofty goal of growing things without a fuss, that I'm embarking on a new series. In this "Simply Grow" series, I'll show you the basic steps for growing a variety of vegetables as simply as possible. If you're familiar with my gardening philosophies, then you know that I like to grow vegetables with simplicity in mind, and that means no fertilizers and no pesticides - even organic pesticides. Good ol' compost is enough for me - and about all I want to deal with. I can't help but assume that there are others of you out in the vast gardening world who, like me, also want to grow vegetables without the need for a degree in agriculture. This series is for you. As posts are added to this series, you'll find links to them in my vegetable growing guide. I hope to eventually have for you a simple a simple set of instructions for growing each of the vegetables listed in the guide, so you can have an easy reference to consult when you're ready to add a new vegetable to your garden.

And now, without further ado, I present to you some basic information on growing one of my favorite garden veggies - kale. Kale is not a prima donna. It doesn’t need much attention and little is required to get kale growing like a champ. Kale is like a good friend who’s always there for you - except that you can eat it. I won’t get into the specific reasons why you can’t eat your friends, but if you’re really curious about that, I’d recommend consulting a trusted clergy member or therapist - but please don’t consult a friend until you get this whole issue sorted out. Now back to kale.

Kale thrives during times of the year when other vegetables in your garden are fading from lack of heat and sun. It doesn’t care if you happen to get a frost here or there, and, in fact, a frost will actually make kale taste sweeter. Though considered a member of the cabbage family, kale seems less prone to pest damage than other cabbage family vegetables, which is somewhat confusing to me because whether raw or cooked, kale is delicious!

I grow nearly all of my vegetables in raised bed boxes, and kale is no exception. I highly recommend growing kale in raised bed boxes, especially if you are new to the world of vegetable gardening.

Before you plant your kale seeds, you’ll want to prepare your raised bed. Make sure you’ve added plenty of mature compost, to give your kale plenty of nutrients like nitrogen, which “leaf” category plants (from our “leaf” crop rotation group) love. Nitrogen helps leafy plants to get more, well, leafy, and compost is a great source of nitrogen.

Once your raised bed is prepared, it’s time to plant your kale seeds.

  • DEPTH: Kale seeds should be planted to a depth of 1/4 to 1/2 inch.
  • SPACING: Kale should be planted about 16” apart, but can be much closer if you plan to plant smaller varieties of kale (such as “Russian Red”, which is also known as “Ragged Jack”) or if you plan to harvest continually rather than harvesting the entire plant at once. I grow Russian Red Kale about 8”-10” apart, sometimes even closer. You can thin plants when they’re a few inches tall to give them more room, using the thinnings for a salad or in a soup or other dish.
  • WATERING NEWLY PLANTED SEEDS AND SEEDLINGS: Water freshly planted seeds and small seedlings daily using a hose attachment that creates a gentle spray.
  • WATERING ESTABLISHED KALE PLANTS: Established kale plants (those that are several inches tall and have several leaves on each plant) will need consistent water but not excessive quantities of water. Drip irrigation is usually sufficient. How much water your plants will need is dependent on the weather and your specific climate - if it’s hotter your plants may need more water. You can start by setting your drip irrigation timer to water for 30 minutes three times a week, or you can water your kale a few times a week by hand. If the plants aren't growing well or seem limp, try giving them more water and see if the problems are resolved.

If you have cabbage pests in your garden (such as flea beetle, which sometimes bothers kale), you may want to grow your kale under row covers. Make arches over your raised beds using PVC pipe and cover the arches with row cover fabric. You may need to remove the row covers if the weather gets hot to keep your plants from burning.

That said, kale is generally not bothered by pests. I have my kale growing happily out in the open without row covers or any other protection and I’ve seen very little pest damage. If you’re brave, try growing your first batch of kale without row covers (or try one batch with and one without) and see how much kale your garden bugs munch. This is usually my practice as I feel that it’s worth it to sacrifice one year’s worth of a crop if it means knowing for certain that I can do without going through the trouble of putting row covers over that crop for the foreseeable future. If you’re starting early enough in the season, you may even have time to start a second crop within the same season.

You can start harvesting kale when the leaves are a few inches tall. I try to leave at least two good sized leaves on each plant when I’m harvesting in this manner. You can also wait until the plant is full grown and then harvest the entire plant at once. In my experience, kale (specifically Russian Red/Ragged Jack) doesn’t mind being harvested a few leaves at a time, and, in fact, the last couple of times I’ve picked a few leaves off of my kale plants they seemed to bounce back and look even better than before!

In addition to being easy to grow and harvest, kale is also versatile in the kitchen. I love to throw it into a soup or stew and it’s also quite tasty cooked in the frying pan with a little olive oil, butter, and some garlic or seasonings. It can also be eaten raw, and therefore makes a nice addition to salads - or a great snack to munch while working out in the garden.

What’s your favorite way to enjoy kale? Have a favorite recipe that includes kale? Feel free to share in the comments section below!

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