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Growing your own kale

This veggie takes up little space and is packed with nutrition

Kale leaves are usually heavily textured.

Many consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it is grown/raised, and its nutritional value, so are growing their own vegetables. Even some urban gardeners with very small yards can achieve this by using containers or interspersing a few veggies among their flowers.

One very suitable vegetable is kale, because it takes up little space and is actually rather attractive. Kale is reputed to be very nutrient dense, providing large amounts of vitamins K, C, A and B6, significant amounts of calcium, potassium, iron, and magnesium, and smaller amounts of several other vitamins and minerals. It can be incorporated into many food dishes; used in green salads and in stir-fries, chopped up and added into homemade soups, or used in sandwiches instead of lettuce.

When grown properly (given adequate water and nutrients), kale leaves are tender with a mild flavour. During extremely hot weather the leaves can get a bit tough and the taste somewhat bitter, but when cooler temperatures return, the flavour and texture return to their usual palatable state. The newest leaves are always the most tender. Kale is very cold tolerant and will endure several degrees of frost with no ill effect — in fact frost actually sweetens the taste of the leaves. It is definitely a cool-weather crop and can be enjoyed almost right up to when the snow flies. Throwing a blanket over the plants on very cold nights will ensure its survival until cold daytime temperatures fully establish themselves.

The plants are available at garden centres in the spring. Kale requires a long growing season — it is usually not harvested until after 70 to 90 days from seed, or 55 to 75 days from when transplants are put into the garden. Seeds can be planted directly in the garden — plant them 1-1/2 cm deep, as soon as the soil can be worked because it is so cold/frost tolerant. Germination will be patchy if the soil is not warm so a plastic cover or cloche can be used to increase the soil temperature. This will also protect the emerging seedlings from flea beetle attack. I start seeds early indoors which both gives the plants a head start and eliminates the threat from flea beetles.

Kale can be interspersed throughout the garden or even among the flowers in a border. Avoiding a monoculture area containing only kale will reduce the damage inflicted by insect pests; slugs and cabbage worms are the most prevalent pests that attack it. I allow a few dill plants to grow near the kale to further deter insect attack. If pests are a real problem grow your kale all in one place and erect a permanent cover to protect the plants from cabbage butterflies. Spreading a layer of coarse sand or other gritty material around the base of the plants will deter slugs.

Avoid planting kale near tomatoes or beans and seed it in an area that has a rich, loamy, well-drained soil. It performs well in full sun but if you can supply a location that provides relief from the midday sun, the leaves will not become as bitter during the hottest days of the summer. Kale prefers its soil to be kept consistently moist.

There are various types of kale and each is defined by the shape and texture of its leaves. Tuscan kale has upright, very crinkled leaves, some with a distinct blue tinge, and there is both curly leaf kale and plain leaf kale. The names refer to the texture of the leaves, although few kales have perfectly smooth surfaces; most are somewhat crinkled and some are very heavily textured. The rough texture means that before using the leaves they need to be washed thoroughly as soil and bugs can be hidden in the crevices. Usually just a few lower leaves are harvested at one time but if the whole plant is cut off about 10 cm from the soil surface, new leaves will develop on the stem.

Kale provides colour and textural interest to the garden, and there are purple varieties that will add even more colour. Individual plants can be tucked in here and there among other plants in flower beds and kale can even be grown in containers.

Wherever you grow kale, you will enjoy its beauty as well as its taste. You will also benefit from the nutrition provided by this popular food.

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