Don't bother checking your flip phones or worrying that you missed last night's episode of Gossip Girl. It's not suddenly 2008. I'm aware that kale is not breaking news, and it may well be at the point of "SRSLY???" Nevertheless, I persist with my late-to-the-party and not-cool-anymore love of kale.
I know, you're not new. You know that kale is a superfood. You know it's packed with all sorts of good stuff, including Vitamins A, K, C, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and folate. It can be eaten raw or cooked, and is my favorite smoothie ingredient. But did you know it's kind of pretty, and comes in different textures and colors? Kale is my new experiment in edible decorative gardening.
Last year, I replaced a flower border with rows of red and yellow stemmed swiss chard. The result was that I saved money on buying flats of flowers, and I was able to eat my decorations. The downside was the inevitable, "What's for dinner? Oh yeah. Swiss chard. Again." (Insert deep sigh of resignation.)
Not that we don't love swiss chard, but it was a little bit of a one trick pony in our house. I have higher hopes for the kale, which can be eaten as cooked greens, raw in salads, and baked into crispy chips, as well as the aforementioned smoothie ingredient. This may fail as well, and you can ask me in August how much I still love kale. But it's only April, and right now, I'm fully on board with the kale saturation plan.
To keep things decorative and interesting, I'm mixing it up this year with a few different varieties:
Start kale indoors in flats, or direct sow seeds in early spring. Kale is a cool weather crop and likes moist rich soil and a sunny spot. Although it might get a little leggy and strange looking during the summer, it will still keep producing. It does prefer the gentler temperatures of spring and fall, and will even tolerate frost. I overwintered kale fairly easily last year with a light floating row cover and a mulch of leaves.
Kale is a heavy feeder, so use an organic granular fertilizer when preparing your planting bed, and additional applications of a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer (like a fish emulsion) throughout the growing season. Keep mulched to preserve moisture, and weeded to kale's shallow roots don't have to compete.
Pests, Diseases, and the Like:
As a member of the Brassica family, kale is plagued by flea beetles, cabbage worms, and cabbage loopers. You can read my opinion of (and attack plan for) those little fiends here. Flea beetles eat tiny holes in the leaves but the mature kale can usually withstand the munching. They can be deterred with floating row covers, homemade garlic hot pepper sprays, or just blasted off with a hose.
I don't have trouble with kale diseases, mostly because the caterpillars get them first, but it's possible to experience fungus problems and black rot in damp environments where disease stays in the soil. Use soaker hoses instead of sprinklers to water the base of the plants, mulch to protect infected dirt from splashing onto leaves, and practice crop rotation to escape last year's kale diseases that might be harbored in the ground.
So far, I've got about 50 kale plants in the ground and more seedlings started. I will be the envy of vegans everywhere! See you next time and thanks for playing!
OK, perhaps I’m resorting to preschool name-calling here, but that’s how I roll. Both the cabbage looper and cabbage worm cause much wailing and gnashing of teeth in my garden every year, and this year it ends. Thanks to my friend the internet, I am armed with both knowledge and weaponry, and I intend to defeat these voracious beasts.
And just what do these little hell hounds look like? Well, they look remarkably like tiny caterpillars, and the cabbage moths in particular grow up into a lovely little whitish yellow butterfly looking creatures. Not so scary, right? Wrong. These little jerks can turn your favorite cole crop (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and the like) into a holey mess full of green caterpillar poop. The kale in particular can look leafy and beautiful one day, and then be reduced to a skeletal collection of stalk and leaf stems in no time at all. Since this is my own personal YEAR OF KALE, I must take a two pronged approach to defeating my enemy. First, I have to learn all about it to determine its weakness. Second, I must gather my armaments.
Life Cycle Of a Bad Bug (Or Two):
Both the looper and the worm pupae overwinter attached to plant debris, emerging in the spring ready to ass and take names. As I mentioned earlier, the cabbage worm doubles as an adorable 1-2” white butterfly, while the looper resembles a homely brown evening moth. Both lay eggs on the underside of plant leaves, which then hatch into little green caterpillars.
The looper and the worm are similar in appearance, although the looper moves in a more inch worm kind of way (hence the name). Last year's garden nemesis was the cross-striped cabbage worm shown below, caught in the act of eating and pooping and being a real (expletive of your choice).
Once the caterpillars emerge, they continue their Erik Carle inspired march of death until they pupate for a few weeks, and rise again to continue to be the ruin of my favorite green smoothie ingredient. Following their own personal "can't stop, won't stop" mantra, they can produce three to five generations per year.
Most organic remedies hinge on the use of floating row covers. These should be placed immediately after planting to prevent the moths from laying eggs. This is a good idea, and I might start out the spring with some in place, but I really don't want my garden to look like a bunch of napping KKK members all summer long. I did, however, buy a big old pile of these this year just in case. Budget conscious gardeners might appreciate using plain ole tulle from the craft store would work just the same at a cheaper price.
The next level of defense is about watching for egg and caterpillar placement and picking them off, which is also good, but takes more effort than I'm usually willing to expend. Once the caterpillars strike, the plants can be treated with a sprays containing BTK (Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki) or spinosad. The internet also yields a variety of remedies in the realm of homemade garlic and pepper sprays, none of which I can vouch for, but I would certainly be willing to try.
Interplanting crops with other plants that either repel the bad bugs, attract good bugs, or simply grow well together, is known as companion planting. In the case of these caterpillars, heavily scented crops like onions, dill, sage, and rosemary are said to repel the moths. Companion planting is often a matter of "try it and see for yourself" rather than a scientifically researched fact, but if you're growing a variety of crops anyway, it's certainly easy enough to plant some next to each other for a purpose. I bought some onion sets, and have interplanted them with the kale in one of my rows, and plan on giving the broccoli the same treatment.
So that's my bug plan for today. Stay tuned for the results, and watch for more articles featuring me locked in an epic battle for truth and justice with a variety of extremely tiny creatures. Huzzah!
I am Laura; lover of plants, fan of words, drinker of wine, practitioner of yoga, planner of schemes, and conductor of the family crazy train, Check here for gardening fun, harvest recipes, yoga philosophy, and whatever else I love to write about.