Kale, a nutrient dense vegetable high in vitamins, is well known for its many health benefits. Easy to grow and winter hardy in the UK, it’s a fantastic plant for the hungry home gardener. Kale’s delicious leaves make a tasty addition to all kinds of meals cooked and raw, but did you know that you can also eat other parts of this cruciferous vegetable and that growing it benefits wildlife too?!
Kale is high in vitamin K, C and also contains B6 as well as calcium, copper, magnesium, potassium and beta-carotene. It’s often called a “superfood” and, unlike most so-called super foods, it’s very delicious, versatile, widely available at a reasonable cost and (with some protection during summer months) can grow year round in the UK without the air miles of imported veg! That makes it especially super to me.
I grow many varieties of kale including two kinds of perennial kale: Taunton Deane and a variegated one I have grown from a shoot from my allotment neighbours, Adam and Kimberley.
Taunton Deane grows year round and does not flower, unlike Daubenton perennial kale which can. They live for 4-6 years and are propagated from rooting shoots. One plant can quickly grow into a hedge, like this one in my back garden. They are prone to attack from cabbage white butterfly and cabbage moth caterpillars as well as pigeons and other wild creatures. Resilient, even when stripped back to twigs by pests they will regrow. The main problem is storm damage – if they get too big they can be knocked over and killed in high winds. But if that happens it is easy to make more kale babies from a shoot.
Annual kales offer more than just nutrient-packed tasty leaves. During the spring, overwintered kales start to shoot. These are delicious raw fresh from the plant, or cooked just like tenderstem broccoli. As well as steamed as a side dish, I love them in stir fries and oven roasted too. Just drizzle with a little light vegetable oil (I usually use olive or sunflower) and roast for 15 minutes at 180˚F. Cold roasted shoots are delicious in salads, too.
Regular picking encourages more shoots to grow, and you can still pick the larger kale leaves too.
Some kale varieties, such as Asparagus Kale, have been bred especially for their tasty, tender shoots.
In my polytunnel I have around 5 varieties of kale as well as other brassicas – it’s looking very lush and green in there now. Diversity is very important for a healthy garden and these plants are growing alongside other vegetables and many edible flowers including violas.
There’s no need for any extra protection for the kale in the polytunnel at this time of year, but any at the allotment have to be netted against pigeons, deer, partridge and pheasant. During the summer and autumn, butterfly netting protects the allotment kale from caterpillars, too – they would need netting anyway due to the deer and birds!
Happy in the Kale!
I’d pulled the netting back for this photo, taken 9 years ago at the allotment in October – must have been a warm day. There are so many varieties to choose from!
Allowing the kale to flower brings another dimension to the brassica – edible flowers that smell of vanilla and honey! The heady fragrance envelops me when I open the polytunnel up every morning.
The flowers are nice to nibble straight from the plant and sprinkled on top of salads.
Other overwintered plants are flowering too including mustards, rocket and pak choi.
The fragrance and bright colours of these flowers attracts beneficial insects too, providing early forage for bees, hoverflies, parasitic wasps and other insects. Many of these are also useful pest predators: encouraging them into your garden means fewer aphids and cabbage white caterpillars. The larvae of hoverflies for example eat hundreds of aphids each.
This is one of the raised beds in November 2017 – I plant in a polyculture of different vegetables and edible flowers to increase diversity, reduce pests – and it looks more interesting too!
Bees and other insects foraging on bolting brassicas
Not all birds are a problem for kales – robins and other small birds feed on insects on the plant without damaging the leaves. At Roth Bar and Grill, fledgling sparrows living in the walls use the bolting kale plants as a useful perch when learning about the life outside whilst enjoying nibbling on some aphids which start to arrive on the plants as the flowers are turning to seed. It doesn’t look very appealing but they are very useful for the wild things to eat, until it is time to compost the kale.
When it is time to clear and plant something else, I remove it by chopping close to the ground, using a sharp pocket knife to cut the roots, leaving as many as I can in the soil – they are good for soil fungi and microbes. The tough stalks need chopping into 15cm (6″) pieces before adding to the heap – I use a sharp spade, a small saw works well too, or you can put them through a garden shredder. You can eat the stalks if you wish, they are hard and difficult to chew, so take some cooking! Alternatively, add to stocks for extra flavour and vitamins.
With care, annual kale will keep cropping for two years or more. These cavolo nero kales at my kitchen garden at Roth Bar and Grill has been providing tasty leaves for the menu for over two years! It has now gone abundantly to flower!
All of my polytunnel kale will be harvested before the tomatoes, aubergines and other summer crops are planted but I do leave some kale and other brassicas dotted about in flower beds to flower and go to seed.
Spring sown kale is likely to bolt because it is its flowering time, but I have been able to keep some going with regular picking. For overwintered kales, grown inside or out, I sow in September for October plantings.
Kale Recipe ideas
In The Creative Kitchen, recipes for kale include kale and czar bean soup, kale, parsnip and carrot bhajis, kale and radish salad, roasted crispy kale and you can also use it in any of the broccoli recipes too. It’s great in hummus: before processing, rip the leaves into pieces with your fingers and add to the other ingredients, or steam first if you prefer to use it cooked.
Dehydrated kale leaves are tasty added to soups and stews or use to make kale salt, using the recipe here for nasturtium salt.
A delicious way to eat raw kale is to massage it.
Take a large bowl and several handfuls of kale – any kind. Strip the soft leaves from the hard stems (these can be composted or added to stocks) and rip into pieces. Sprinkle a little sea salt into the bowl and start to massage, just as you would someone’s shoulders. It’s helpful to have something to listen to whilst doing this.
(warning! if you have paper cuts on your fingers it is best to massage without the salt, it stings!)
After 5-10 minutes, depending on the thickness of your leaves, the kale will be soft and dark.
This is nice with just a little salt and pepper. For a zingy flavour, stir though 1 tsp lemon and 3 tsp olive oil, or add a few splashes of tamari stirred through with some finely chopped garlic and ginger. Yum!
I’ll be chatting about growing no dig and how to use plants from the root to shoot at Toby’s Garden Festival, May 3rd-4th, Powderham Castle.
Toby wrote a blog about the talk here: https://tobygardenfest.co.uk/blog/2019/02/26/to-dig-or-not-to-dig/