This member of the brassica family looks gorgeous in your garden and tastes great on your plate, says Fiona Lawrenson, who’s a big fan
I just love curly kale. I became totally hooked on the plant when I was introduced to it at Wisley. From a designer’s point of view, I loved the look of the leaves and could see how well it complemented the other plants. From a gardener and cook’s point of view, I found that it wasn’t that difficult to grow and tasted simply delicious when cooked.
Like all brassicas, kale prefers an open, unshaded site with fertile, well-drained, moisture-retentive and slightly acidic soil. If your soil is too acidic, then add enough lime to change the pH level to pH7 (you can buy simple kits from garden centres which will show you how to do this).
For the best preparation, you should prepare your vegetable bed the winter before, but if you’ve only done it this spring, then it’s not the end of the world – go ahead anyway.
Sow the seed outside in late April/May into well-prepared seedbeds. These should be sown thinly at a depth of 1 inch. In late June/July, transplant the seedlings into additional neat rows placing them between 15–18 inches apart. Make sure you firm them in and water well. Check the plants throughout the summer for both caterpillar eggs and larvae. If you do find them, then my best advice is remove them by squashing them between your finger and thumb!
As kale is a crop that grows through the hardest of winters, it will benefit from an organic liquid feed, such as seaweed extract, in the spring. This will give the plant a real boost and stimulate new productive side shoots. You can start harvesting kale throughout the late autumn through to early spring by removing the lower leaves and working upwards.
Like most brassicas, kale can become susceptible to soil-born diseases such as club root, so do check the plants for lumps on the roots when harvesting. You should always try to prevent disease from occurring by: rotating your crops each year so that they are not grown in the same place; providing good drainage; working in lots of well-rotted organic matter into the soil and checking that it has the correct pH level. Always burn infected matter, never compost it as this can easily spread disease throughout the garden. I once heard of an old gardener who swore by placing chunks of rhubarb in each hole before he transplanted his cabbages. Apparently the acid from the fruit helped to prevent club root!
Saying all that, I think kale is the easiest of all brassicas to grow. The plant can stand up to the winter weather extremely well. Adding kale to your vegetable garden creates an ornamental effect. The curly kale ‘Pentland Brig’ has excellent dark petrol-green coloured leaves or, for a really colourful display, try ‘Russian Red’, which has dark purple leaves with scarlet veins.
Redbor: a new variety – red-tinged leaves turn crimson in cooler weather. Nero di Toscana: a narrow, frilly, dark green/black.
To cook kale, simply wash thoroughly since mud and bugs get trapped in the leaves. Chop coarsely, place a small amount of water in the bottom of the pan, add the kale (so in effect you are steaming the leaves) and cook for about 5 minutes. The leaves should still be slightly crisp when eaten – there’s nothing worse than soggy greens. Pouring a white cheese sauce over the cooked leaves, as you would with cauliflower cheese, works a treat.
In the spring, very young, tender side-shoots can be used in salads.