Now that we have vegetables flown in from far flung corners of the world the concept of seasonal food has all but disappeared for us. Gone are the days when the joy of early spring was tempered by the fact that stored crops had been eaten and fresh food was in short supply.
Surviving greater cold than most other crops, vitamin enriched Kale provided essential nutrition.
The thing I love about kale the most is not its superfood qualities, its lovely bright green leaves or the sweet cabbagey taste. No, I love kale simply because it is there when I need it. It’s tremendously hardy, defying anything that winter can possibly conjure up. ‘Eat me I’m here, you can rely on me,’ the tall green plant says when everything around is falling away.
Kale 'Hungry Gap' is a reliable old variety that is superior in hardiness and colour. It is named after that season in traditional agriculture at the end of spring when the brassicas and chard are finished and nothing else is quite ready and not even cabbage can be grown.
Similar to Ragged Jack, with a wavy edge to the leaves, turning steel blue with a red and purple hue in colder weather, it is very easy to grow, unlike other brassicas it will tolerate poor soil conditions and is rarely troubled by those dreaded enemies of the cabbage family – pigeons, club root and cabbage root fly.
As a 'cut and come again' crop you can start removing leaves when the plant is just 5cm high. The new leaves will continuously form. Alternatively wait till October before you start removing tender leaves from the top of the plant. Once the main crown has been harvested side shoots will form which will be ready to harvest from February to May. Pick shoots that are 10 to 15cm (4 to 6in) long and still young.
Kale it is easy to grow throughout the winter months, their attractive leaves make them very useful in potagers. This hardy crop can provide nutritious leaves even in the depths of winter. Mature plants survive to -12°C (10°F) or below. Mark the site so you can find the fresh greens under the snow.
Prepare the site:
There is an ideal soil and site for Kale but rest assured it will grow in almost all conditions, even part shade. It will produce a good crop provided that the drainage is satisfactory. For the ultimate crop, grow in full sun in a soil that was enriched with compost or manure the previous season.
As the seedlings are not transplanted until June or July, it is usual to use land which has recently been vacated by peas, early potatoes or other early summer crops. Kale benefits from additional feedings of liquid fertilizer during the growing season; the flavour is improved if the plants grow quickly.
Sowing: Sow in spring and autumn
Sow the seeds where they will mature, as they detest transplanting from April onwards. The timing is not crucial because kales will germinate in temperatures as low as 5°C (42°F) and as high as 35°C (95°F). That's an enormous range for any vegetable. The trick is to time the planting so the kale matures in cold weather.
Kale does not tolerate heat, so direct seed or transplant kale so that it comes to harvest before day time temperatures exceed 26°C (80°F).
Sow kale under cover in autumn for baby leaves after four to six weeks, or directly outdoors for an over-wintering crop.
Sow the seeds about 1.5cm (½in) deep in rows which are 22cm (9in) apart. Germination will take about 10 days. When the plant is about 22cm (9in) high and four leaves have developed (about 6 -8 weeks after sowing) transplant them to their final positions.
They should be planted slightly deeper than they grew in the seed bed. Spacings are 45cm (18in) apart with rows the same distance apart. Water the young plants in dry weather.
Almost no care is required because these are one of the strongest and most disease resistant of all vegetables. Remove yellowing leaves which may appear round the base. Keep the weeds under control with regular hoeing. As winter approaches earth up plants to protect against frost and wind rock. Mulch thickly when the ground freezes and you can harvest again in early spring.
Harvest: Matures 50 to 60 days from transplant.
Wait until the plants are touched by a frost to sweeten the taste. When the leaves have experienced a cold snap, they wrinkle and curl and strengthen greatly, creating a more satisfying, textural leaf. Some of the tastiest kale is harvested under a foot of snow!
Pluck individual leaves as you need them; one or two leaves for each serving. Avoid cutting the developing bud at the centre of each plant.
Beets, Celery, Cucumbers, Dill, Garlic, Hyssop, Lettuce, Mint, Nasturtium, Onions, Potatoes, Rosemary, Sage, Spinach, Swiss chard
Rotate your crops, planting brassicas, of any kinds, in the same ground more often than once every four years runs the risk of club root infestation and once you have it, the ground is useless for up to a decade. Don't take needless chances, even with "catch crops" of radishes.
Because Kale eats up a lot of growing space if planted in a bed with the other brassicas, you may prefer to grow kale in a bucket or other generous planter, separate from your main crops. The soil can then be easily replaced annually, with old soil being dumped far from any growing area.
Kale is usually harvested over a short season, the leaves cluster around a tender shoot, making it surprisingly good to eat and not unlike sprouting broccoli. Test the stem (does it snap cleanly?) and, if succulent, prepare and serve as you would broccoli.
Once Kale matures it will be tougher, use in dishes such as Caldo Verde ("green soup"), a classic Portuguese dish that combines kale with potatoes and sausage.
In terms of robustness of flavour and texture, the ranking of kale goes: Cavolo Nero, Curly Kales, Red, Thousand-head and then Red Russian, with the latter needing least cooking (and suffering most from over-cooking). For a quick vegetable accompaniment, steam for just a few minutes. For soups, stews and sauces needing something more robust, go for Cavolo Nero.
With their loose leaves, Kale are the most primitive members of the cabbage family and considered to be closer to wild cabbage than most domesticated forms. Their origins are in the eastern Mediterranean area and Asia Minor. Kales have been food crops since about 2000 B.C. In Europe, kale was the most common green vegetable until the end of the Middle Ages.
Kale is known botanically by the name Brassica oleracea variety acephala which translates to mean "cabbage of the vegetable garden without a head." (Cabbage plants are named Brassica oleracea variety capitata, which translates to "cabbage of the vegetable garden with a head.")
Kale is a Scottish word derived from coles (Greek) or caulis (Roman), terms that refer to the whole cabbage-like group of plants. The German word kohl has the same origin.
Kale is also called borecole, the word comes from the Dutch word ‘boerenkool’. Boer meaning farmer or peasant and ‘kool’ (cole) meaning cabbage.
History is often too busy with recording the deeds instigated by the great and good, and their accumulation of vast profits while actually destroying resources, to take much note of the real heroes of genuine wealth creation, those who actually create a new resource as opposed to simply a profit. So it is that we do not know anything about the anonymous geniuses (admittedly some millennia ago) whether: hen-wives, herders, fishers or hunters, who planted the rare wild Brassica oleracea from the western sea cliffs into what would later be called a kail-yird and carefully selected seed from it till they had created kail.
In so doing they created something that would become so important to Scottish culture the very word became a synonym for food or a meal. To be asked "to kale" means to be asked to dine, although not necessarily on kale.
In Scotland, kale was used as a potherb in the middle ages and was known as 'Keal or 'Kail'.
The word also entered the stock of proverbial speech, it also gives us a name for that much disparaged genre of fiction, 'kail-yard' literature.
The "Kailyard" school of Scottish writers, which included J.M.Barrie (author of "Peter Pan"), consisted of authors who wrote about traditional rural Scottish life. (kailyard means kale field).
Most important among kale's effects is the fact that it saved generations of children, from whom many of us ultimately descend, from the 'spring disease', we now know as scurvy.
Seasons have disappeared for us, now we have vegetables flown in from Kenya and South Africa. Many of us have forgotten that in a northern subsistence economy it is in spring that famine bites hardest. Kale survives a greater cold than most other vitamin rich foods and even if the leaves are reduced to slime by frost the casstock will sprout again early in spring.
It is even available before (and in greater bulk than) those two other hungry gap standbys that we now consider as weeds and spray with Glyphosate but that were carefully planted and tended in the past, Urtica dioica and Aegopodium podagraria - nettles and ground elder.
The farm servants of the early 20th century may have felt hard done by when fed kail brose made with the bree from the kail served in the farmhouse but they probably got the greater benefit the greater part of the essential nutrients having been dissolved in the boiling water.
In Scotland 'casstocks', the stalks of the kale plant were a Halloween prop, long before neeps were common. They were also used as torch holders.
Kale were pulled in the dark, with your eyes shut, to divine a future lover. The length and straightness of the stalk indicating a future partner’s height and figure, soil on the roots shows wealth, the bitter or sweet taste of the pith their temperament.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 5 grams Average Seed Count 1,750 Seeds Seed Form Natural Seeds per gram 350 seeds per gram Common Name Keal, Kail or Borecole Family Brassicaceae Genus Brassica Species oleracea var. acephala Cultivar Hungry Gap Synonym Borecole Hardiness Hardy Biennial Position Rest assured Kale will grow in almost all conditions Soil It will produce a good crop provided that the drainage is satisfactory Time to Sow From April onwards. Germination About 10 days. Harvest Pluck individual leaves as you need them Time to Harvest Matures 50 to 60 days from transplant.