When people ask how my garden is growing, I sometimes joke that it’s not so much a garden as it is a “kale yard.” As author Sharon Hanna (The Book of Kale) writes, “In 19th-century Scotland, common language began to reflect the all-importance of kale: Kail yard meant kitchen garden, kail was used as a generic term for dinner and all kitchens featured a kail-pot for cooking.”
Fair enough, because I firmly believe there’s no easier or more versatile edible than kale, and it can grow year-round — or very close to it — in most gardens, with endless harvests available for a multitude of healthy dishes.
Despite my tendency to plant kale here, there and everywhere, my garden doesn’t look like a mono-crop, because kale comes in abundant colours and leaf shapes. Because I plant in early spring and early summer, I also have a variety of shapes and sizes as the more mature plants bud (pick these buds for a broccolini-like harvest—they’re delicious) and begin to bloom. Rainbow Lacinato and Redbor kale look stunning in pots, and stately Tuscan makes a dusky, bluish-hued hedge. Frilly Scottish and broad-leafed Portuguese varieties offer a soft-green backdrop to edible flowers, such as pansies or nasturtiums, while self-seeding clumps of pink-stemmed Red Russian pop up throughout my garden.
I mix in other plants, too. Lines of edible alliums discourage pests while masses of herbs, including thyme, oregano, rosemary and sage, as well as parsley and other members of the Apiaceae plant family, encourage beneficial insects and offer up bee-friendly flowers. The bright yellow kale flowers attract these essential creatures by the hundreds, and there’s nothing sweeter than watching a kale blossom bounce this way and that as a buzzing bee burrows its head deep into the flower to gather nectar.
All told, despite the fact that it’s essentially a kail yard, my garden is a colourful, multi-layered mix of edible foliage, abundant with beneficial insects and healthy organic food.
Kale, kale, the gang’s all here
Here’s a quick rundown on six of the key kale varieties you’ll find as plants or seeds in nurseries, seed houses, at Seedy Saturdays or in the gardens of friends. More types are becoming available as people discover the benefits of easy-to-grow, super-nutritious kale.
More collard-like than other kale types, this variety grows rapidly and has large smooth leaves that rinse off in a flash. Billed as being quite heat tolerant, this staple of Portugal is known for its mild, sweet flavour.
Rainbow Lacinato (a.k.a. Rainbow Tuscan)
This gorgeous variety features leaves with myriad shades of purple, pink and green, sometimes reaching six feet (1.8 m) tall. I know several Zone 6 gardens where Rainbow Lacinato is into its third or fourth year, behaving like a perennial, even though kale is regarded as an annual. You just cut it back a bit after flowering and it grows up again.
The curly purple foliage of this kale variety is stunning in a container or front entrance garden, and its leaves are equally gorgeous on the dinner table. It’s a hybrid, so you can’t save seeds. Another frilly hybrid is the green-leaved, cold-hardy Winterbor. While all kale can hold its own through chilly weather, if you live in Zone 4 or colder, add this variety to your kale mix for extra insurance.
I grow mountains of this tender kale with easy-to-rinse leaves, and it self-seeds like crazy. Red Russian grows anywhere—in sand, gravel, even between the cracks of a sidewalk—and you can simply tug out the little seedlings from wherever they pop up and plug them into the garden bed where you would like them to grow. Use the seeds you collect from Red Russian to grow micro-greens. This variety is the most generous when it comes to providing those amazing kale buds.
Curly and dramatic when planted in a cluster, this variety has fluffy, light green foliage that contrasts beautifully with Redbor. While the leaves of Scottish kale are more time-consuming to wash than the flat leaves of other types, it’s worth it to have this wavy greenery as part of your edible collection.
Tuscan (a.k.a. Lacinato, Black or Dinosaur)
Elegant in the garden with long, bluish/blackish leaves, this variety is considered the best for drying into chips. Its bumpy leaves, reminiscent of dinosaur skin, are perfect for a stegosaurus or triceratops to chow down on. Or at least you can tell your kids that to get them excited about the kale garden. Tuscan kale is a little slower to grow than other varieties, so plant your fall/winter crop by mid-May.
About Carol Pope
Carol Pope is co-author (with Sharon Hanna) of the newly released The Book of Kale & Friends: 14 Easy-to-Grow Superfoods (Douglas & McIntyre). She has 25 years of experience in editing, garden writing and organic gardening. As editor of GardenWise magazine for more than a decade, and editor of gardenwiseonline.ca, Carol focused on organic gardening in British Columbia. She was contributing editor to several gardening bestsellers and is garden series editor of more than 15 books and guides on organic gardening.