I don’t know when I began eating kale regularly, but I definitely didn’t grow up eating it. It was most likely while living in Portland, Ore., during the kale-crazed early 2000s. One of my many roommates at the time probably cooked it with tofu for dinner, and I liked it.
I have to admit, I’ve always been a very conscientious eater, and it probably helped that I didn’t start with an aversion to kale. I know for some, it’s a vegetable that might get purposefully overlooked or only experimented with on occasion because we’ve heard how healthy it is.
The ease of growing kale in Central Texas in fall coupled with its unmatched nutritional benefits should have you planting and eating more kale this winter. Sneak some kale into a smoothie or go full-on raw kale salad and you might become a kale convert.
Kale is an easy-to-grow and adaptable fall crop to plant in September when the temperatures are still warm. It is a member of the brassica genus in the mustard family. This genus of plants is known as cole crops.
Kale is high in vitamins A and C and iron and also has a long growing season that allows the gardener to continuously harvest leaves. It is considered one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, and because of this, it was a popular vegetable to grow in wartime victory gardens to ensure that Americans’ diets remained healthy due to food rationing.
Kale grows best in the temperature range of 50 to 75 degrees. Like other leafy greens, it can be planted from mid-September through early December in Central Texas.
If you want to plant kale before the temperature drops below 75 degrees, you can plant it in a naturally shaded area in the garden or you can apply a shade cloth over small plantings until they adapt to the temperature and direct sun.
Kale plants can withstand temperatures of 10 degrees, and cold weather actually enhances the flavor. Kale will continue to produce leaves until May or June when it finally gets too hot and the plant begins to bolt.
Plant seeds or transplants in well-tilled soil, and keep seeds moist until germination. The final spacing of kale plants is important. The plants need excellent airflow to prevent pests and disease. I’m not a proponent of over-planting a garden for this reason. Make sure there is at least 1 foot between kale plants.
Harvest the leaves when the plant is about 1 foot tall. To do this, remove the outer leaves of the plant by gently but firmly holding the leaf at the stem and pushing down on it. It should easily snap free from the stalk.
Look out for pests like harlequin bugs, aphids and cabbage loopers or cabbage worms, especially in the early fall and then again in late spring when the temperatures are warm. To look for aphids, find them on the stems or underneath leaves. Rub them off between your thumb and finger.
Cabbage worms can be prevented by row cover and by hand-picking them. Look underneath the leaves to find them. BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) is an organic pest spray that will help control caterpillar pests, but you can usually keep an infestation at bay by checking daily and hand-picking.
Harlequin bugs are red and black hard-shelled insects that also target cole crops and can multiply quickly if left unchecked. Learn to identify the barrel-shaped, black and white eggs and nymph stages of them so you can remove them before they reach adulthood and do the most damage. Home-brewed insecticidal soap sprays can help deter them. As always, keep your soil and garden clean and healthy.
To get the maximum nutritional benefits of kale, eat it raw like in the salad recipe below, or cook it with oil and garlic. You can slow roast it with soy sauce and toasted sesame oil for kale chips (my kid’s favorite method).
For a storage idea, blend kale with some water and freeze it in ice cube trays for future use. Once frozen, release the kale cubes from the tray and store them in a zip-top plastic bag in the freezer. Add one or two cubes to a morning smoothie with frozen banana, pineapple and coconut water for a healthy breakfast option. Kids love this smoothie, and they can also help make it.
Kale Smash Recipe
2 bunches of kale, such as lacinato, red Russian, etc., torn into bite-size pieces and rib removed and discarded
4 tablespoons of lime or lemon Juice
Salt to taste
Optional: various chopped garden herbs or edible flowers
Wash hands really well.
Put the torn kale into a large bowl or zip-top bag.
Close the bag and have kids take turns massaging the bag of kale while the rest of the recipe is created. This helps to enhance kale flavor and palatability. Massage until the kale turns a bright green.
Roughly chop up the avocado and sprinkle pieces over the kale. Mush the avocado onto the kale using your hands or a wooden spoon (or in the bag) and continue to massage the kale until the avocado is evenly dispersed.
Add the lime juice and sprinkle the salt onto the kale. Add garden herbs or edible flowers if you’d like.
Mix for the last time and serve.
— Life Lab, a youth garden and nutrition nonprofit located in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Liz Cardinal is the founder of Austin Edible Gardens, austinediblegardens.com.