Kudos for Kale: Why You Need it in Your Garden

This delicious, trendy and healthful green is a must for any vegetable garden.

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kale12

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We’re talking one of the oldest health foods on the planet here - way beyond being a generic restaurant garnish. Without getting in the sometimes-confusing differences between the many different kinds of kale (Brassica oleracea) or their common names, the cabbage and collards relative has become the darling of winter gardens and health foodies. All, including the colorful ornamental varieties, are edible and nutritious.

Cold-hardy kale, which originated in the Mediterranean region and was eaten by Greeks in the fourth century BC, was a staple winter food up until the end of the Middle Ages. It was such a major part of the British diet, Scotsmen called their kitchen gardens “kaleyards” (they even called supper “kail”). Easily grown in the coldest winters, it was promoted heavily in the Dig for Victory program during WWII as an important source of nutrition during rationing. 

Kale is so cold hardy I have seen it overwinter in upstate New York, and it has survived in my own winter container garden down into single digits. And the colder the winter, the sweeter the flavor. Whether started from seed in mid-summer or from transplants in the fall, kale has few pests other than aphids and the hungry green caterpillars of the white cabbage looper moth, making it easy to grow organically. All it needs is sun, occasional watering, and a little fertilizer at planting. 

Though curly leaf kale is very popular for its sweet and mild flavor, my personal favorite for eating is Cavolo nero, also known as Tuscan Blue, Lacinato, and dinosaur kale, with its palm-like topknot of long, narrow blue-green leaves. In addition to being one of the most beautiful accent plants in my winter garden, it is simply the sweetest tasting kale to me, especially when sautéed with a little onion, garlic, and sausage and made into a hearty winter soup! I recently had a trendy friend bake some dried kale leaves into tasty and healthy “kale chips.”

Ornament or Vegetable?

How great is it to plant something that is beautiful, and when you are tired of looking at it you can eat it?

All kale is edible, though some is sweeter and less chewy than others. Many of the colorful ornamental varieties we grow today were developed by Japanese horticulturists who bred varieties with curly or frilly blue or green leaves splashed with white, yellow, pink, rose, red, lavender and violet. And cold weather only intensifies the colors.

Those with smooth leaf margins are often sold as flowering cabbage, while plants with serrated margins are sold as flowering kales, which can have leaves which are ruffled, fringed, or finely-cut so they look feathery. All will “bolt” (start to flower) when weather starts to warm up in the spring, but it just makes saving seed easier later.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Jersey, an island off the southern coast of France, which is where one of the most unusual kales originated. “Tree cabbage” (Brassica oleracae longata) is a type of kale whose stem grows six or more feet tall, and can be dried, varnished, and used as fencing, rafters, and popular walking sticks. Don’t know from experience if it tastes any good, but its leaves were widely used as cattle and sheep fodder.

Kale is fantastic when planted in containers or masses, but I prefer to mix mine in with other cool-season and winter flowers such as pansies, violas, snapdragons, Siberian wallflower, and dusty miller. The colder the weather, the prettier the colors, and even in the spring I love how its tall spires of bright yellow flowers bridge the gap between the winter and summer gardens.

When it is done, I simply pull it up, which loosen a nice size holes in my soil, ready to be freshened with compost, and plugged with summer flowers or herbs. What better plant to use for great looks, nutritious food, and soil prep for another gardening season?

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