How to Grow Kale: Guide to Plant, Harvest & Use Kale
Kale is one of the most popular dark leafy greens around, prized for its high nutrient-density and numerous health benefits. WebMD even refers to kale as a superfood! Of all the “grow guides” we’ve published here, I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to write about how to grow kale… After all, it is one of our favorite versatile veggies – and also quite straightforward to grow!
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know to grow kale at home – from seed (or seedling) to table. We’ll explore the optimal conditions and time of year to grow kale, ways to extend the growing season, and different varieties of kale to grow. Tips for ongoing care, potential pests, and how to harvest, use, and preserve kale are included too!
Ready to grow kale? (The correct answer is kale yes.)
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When to Grow Kale
Kale grows well in a temperature range from 35 to 75 degrees, but is happiest between 60 to 70°F. It is generally considered a ‘cool season crop’, like its fellow members of the brassica plant family, such as cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli.
In most locations, kale has two distinct growing seasons: spring and fall. Yet in moderate climates with only mildly warm summers or little-to-no winter frost, kale can continue to grow for up to a year, or longer! Kale grows exceedingly well as a fall crop in many regions – where there is a longer period of cooling weather ahead. That is because kale is less tolerant of extreme heat than it is of cold. In fact, kale leaves taste better in colder weather, and develop a sweeter flavor after a kiss of frost!
Hardy kale grows longer into the freezing winter months than most leafy greens, said to withstand temperatures down to 10°F. In most locations, kale can be left in the garden all winter! On the flip side, brutal heat can quickly cause kale to “bolt” – or begin to flower and go to seed. Once that happens, the leaves decline in quality, size, and also become more bitter. Note that fall-planted kale that have grown through winter may be triggered to bolt by the lengthening daylight hours of spring, even if temperatures are still cool.
Planting Kale: Seeds or Starts
You can grow kale by sowing seeds directly outdoors, or by planting seedlings – either nursery seedlings, or ones you start indoors yourself. The exact time to plant kale depends on your climate, and if you’re starting with seeds or seedlings. If you don’t have one yet, grab a planting calendar here to help guide your timing – they are available for every USDA hardiness zone!
As a general rule of thumb, plant kale seedlings outside in late winter to early spring, as early as 3 or 4 weeks before your last average frost date. Seeds can be started indoors even a few weeks earlier. Protect tender young seedlings from hard frost after planting with frost cover or cloches.
For a fall harvest, plant kale 6 to 8 weeks before your zone’s first average fall frost date. In most places, that means late summer. Yet places with moderate winters (zones 8, 9, and 10) can plant kale later in the fall and even into winter.
Sow kale seeds in light, well-draining soil about ¼ to ½ inch deep. Maintain consistent moisture during germination. If you’re starting them inside, be sure to provide ample light to avoid tall, leggy seedlings. Directly sowing seeds outdoors can lead to less rapid and consistent germination. Tiny sprouts are also more susceptible to pests outdoors. See this guide for more tips on starting and raising seedlings indoors.
When planting kale seedlings outdoors, space them approximately 12 to 18 inches apart. As long as they’ve been properly hardened off, the stem of tall seedlings can be buried up to their first set of leaves. Water well after planting.
Optimal Kale Growing Location
Kale thrives in moderately rich, cool, consistently damp soil. The soil should also be well-draining. It is not an incredibly ‘heavy feeder’, though it is best to amend the soil with well-aged compost and/or a well-balanced natural fertilizer before planting kale. Ample nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, minerals, organic matter, and beneficial microbial activity within the soil will lead to the most robust kale plants possible. If you’re growing kale in a container, be sure to use one that can drain freely.
Kale grows best in full sun to partial shade. Plan to provide your kale plants at least 6 to 7 hours of direct sun per day. If you’re growing kale in the spring with hot summer weather on the horizon (regularly over 90°F), consider a planting location that receives some afternoon shade. That added protection (along with choosing the right variety) will help your kale survive longer before it ‘bolts’ and goes to seed. During the increasingly dark days of fall, the more sunlight, the better! I also try to keep kale along the back (north side) of garden beds since it can quickly become tall and shade out smaller, shorter plants.
There are a handful of general kale types, and within those groups, dozens of unique cultivars to choose from. Our trusty go-to is lacinato kale, though we grow other types too. Experiment and grow a few different varieties to see what you like and what does best in your climate!
- Curly Kale – Light to medium green leaves with deep frills. Curly kale is common in grocery stores. These compact, prolific kale plants have superior cold-tolerance. A few curly kale varieties include Blue Curled Scotch, Dwarf Blue, Vates, Winterbor, and Redbor – a beautiful deep burgundy-purple curly kale.
- Lacinato or Tuscan Kale – An Italian variety of kale with long, large, narrow leaves that are dark green to bluish in color. Because of the bumpy, scale-like appearance of the leaves, lacinato kale has also been dubbed “dinosaur” kale – or simply dino kale. You may also hear it referred to as cavolo nero or black kale. Of all the kale varieties, Tuscan kale is most likely to grow several feet tall – eventually looking like a mini palm tree. The flattened leaves are ideal for making kale chips. Varieties include classic Tuscano, extra-dark Black Magic, or purple-veined Dazzling Blue – our personal favorite.
- Russian Kale – Generally have wide, mostly flat leaves with fringes around the edge – resembling the shape of large arugula or oak leaf lettuce. Some say Russian kale is the sweetest and the best-tasting type of kale. It can also remain more tender than some other types, even as leaves become quite large. There are a few cultivars of Russian kale: Green Russian, White Russian, and the most popular, Red Russian.
- Portuguese Kale – Hailing from the Mediterranean, this lesser-known type of kale has large, wide, flat paddle-like leaves with thick white veins. It is more reminiscent of collard greens than the quintessential kale we all imagine. Also akin to collards, Portuguese kale is more heat tolerant than other kale varieties. A few Portuguese kale varieties include Tronchuda and Beira, and is sometimes also referred to as Portuguese cabbage or sea-kale. A staple for traditional Portuguese kale soup.
- Other: There are many more varieties of kale, including unique hybrids and heirlooms. For instance, ‘Madeley’ kale is another one of our other favorites, but doesn’t fall into the categories above. Ornamental kale is widely used in fall and winter landscaping, but is also technically edible.
Kale grows best when it is provided consistent and moderate water. Aim to maintain the soil damp at all times – never soggy, but never dried out. Soil within pots tends to dry out more quickly than raised beds or in-ground gardens. Therefore, container-grown kale may require more frequent watering. Add mulch to the soil surface to aid in moisture retention, and also to buffer the soil and roots against temperature swings.
Fertilizing throughout the season
Before planting, amend the soil with compost and mild, slow-release fertilizer. Soon after transplanting, we typically water our seedlings with a dilute seaweed extract to give them a gentle nutritional boost as well as overcome any potential transplant shock. As the growing season continues, we transition to watering the garden beds with homemade compost tea (made from worm castings) once every few months. For especially long-lived kale, apply a fresh top-dressing of compost mulch once the plants reach 6 months old (if you intend to keep them around a bit longer).
Extending the Season
There are a number of ways you can extend your kale growing season, be it into the warmer summer months or through the depths of winter. The first step is to choose varieties that are best-suited for your climate and the season you’re intending to grow kale. For example, Premier and Portugese kale are known to be some of the most heat-tolerant types. Therefore, they’re slower to bolt in the warming weather after spring planting. We have also found Dazzling Blue to be fairly heat tolerant.
While established kale plants can withstand some frost and snow, young seedlings are more sensitive and need protection. For instance, by covering them with dome cloches, frost row cover, bedsheets, plastic row cover supported on hoops, or other similar methods. Even mature kale plants will also appreciate a little added frost protection for extended cold periods, which can increase their winter lifespan in the coldest climates.
Related: Using Hoops and Row Covers for Pest Control, Frost Protection and Shade
Days to harvest: 30 days (baby greens) 50-65 days plus (mature leaves)
I could be mistaken, but I think this is where some people may ‘go wrong’ with their kale. The thing is, kale LOVES to be harvested! Often, and in small amounts. The more you harvest, the more it produces new leafy growth, and the taller and larger it becomes – so don’t hold back! Also, kale leaves left to sit on the plant become increasingly tough over time.
The best way to harvest kale is with the ‘cut and come again’ method – by removing a few of the oldest leaves on the plant each week (or as needed). The oldest leaves are those on the bottom, outermost portion of the stem – closest to the soil rather than the center of the plant. Either cut or carefully tear off individual leaves from the main stalk. You can start this process early, harvesting baby greens while the kale seedlings are young. Always leave behind at least a handful of leaves. The plant needs those to photosynthesize and continue to grow!
Unless you’re done with the plant for the season, never cut the whole thing down like a head of lettuce! It won’t grow back. Also, avoid harvesting leaves from the center of the plant. That is where new leaves grow from, called the terminal bud. If you cut the terminal bud, the kale will stop producing new leaves – or create branching offshoots and only small new leaves instead.
It is best to harvest kale in the morning, or any time the weather is cool and the plants are most perky. Then, store the leaves in an air-tight container or bag with a tiny splash of water to prevent them from wilting. We don’t wash our kale until we use it.
Related: How to Harvest Kale and Leafy Greens (with demo video)
Common Kale Pests
The most common pest insects that fancy kale include cabbage worms, flea beetles, harlequin bugs, and aphids. The first three will cause holes or lacing in the leaves, while sap-sucking aphids cause curling leaves. Kale pests often hide on the underside of leaves, or in the center cluster of new growth. Slugs, snails, or soil-dwelling pests like cutworms may go after small seedlings, which are also prone to damping off (or sudden seedling death).
The most common fungal diseases to inflict kale are powdery mildew and downy mildew, presenting itself as white or yellow fuzzy blotches. Finally, root-knot nematodes may also attack kale roots in the soil. Inflicted plants may be stunted, deformed, and have tell-tale knobby roots.
This list may sound a tad daunting, but we generally find our kale to be fairly resilient. Our greatest struggles here are aphids and cabbage worms, but both are easy to control in an organic manner – especially if you practice proactive prevention, or catch the problem early!
Organic pest control methods we use include covering crops with insect netting, companion planting, routine inspections and hand-picking pests, blasting aphids off with water, and hand picking cabbage worms. Occasionally, treat with DIY soap spray (for aphids) or bacillus thuringiensis (for caterpillars) if the infestation is more advanced. While neem oil can be handy for the foliage of tomatoes and squash plants, I personally do not like to use neem oil on our leafy greens since it does leave a bit of an oily residue behind.
- Organic Aphid Control: 9 Ways to Get Rid of Aphids
- How to Prevent and Treat Powdery Mildew Organically
- Companion Planting 101 (with Garden Companion Planting Chart)
- 8 Organic Ways to Get Rid of Cabbage Worms or Cabbage Moths
- Homemade Insect Soap Spray Recipe (for aphids, mealybugs, mites and more)
- How to Properly Emulsify, Mix and Use Neem Oil Spray
Eating & Preserving Kale
Enjoy kale fresh and cooked
Kale is one of the most versatile veggies you can grow. We eat kale dang near every day! In salad, soup, smoothies, sauerkraut, roasts, stew, chili, frittata, quiche, with eggs… you name it. Basically, you can chop up some kale and toss it in just about anything!
Baby kale leaves are perfectly tender to use raw in salads. To soften more mature kale leaves, give them a good massage first. Then they’re ready for salads or other raw use too! To enjoy cooked kale, we love to simply sauté it – with a little splash of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and sometimes a bit of garlic and onion. It is wonderful on its own, or with other seasonal vegetables.
Making homemade kale chips is a fun and particularly delicious way to eat kale! You can make them in a food dehydrator or the oven, and doll them up with seasonings of choice. Even the kids love them! See our recipe for crispy kale chips here. When done right, they will stay crunchy for a week!
The most tough part of a kale leaf is the fibrous stem, so we typically remove it.( (That is, unless it’s going into soup or something that will cook for a long time to soften it.) The quick and easiest way to de-stem kale is to hold the end of the stem in one hand, pinch the base of the leafy portion with the other, and then simply pull them in opposite directions – stripping the leaf away.
Ways to preserve kale
I’ll admit that we consume most of our kale fresh or cooked, and don’t preserve a great deal of it. But there are still a few ways to do so if you desire! If you’re into fermenting, check out our Super Greens Sauerkraut recipe. I don’t recommend using kale alone though, as it can become too soft by itself in kraut. It is awesome in combination with cabbage, bok choy, or other more crisp, crunchy greens.
You can also freeze kale for later use. The texture won’t be great for eating raw once it defrosts, but is the perfect addition to soup, smoothies, or stew. Wash, de-stem, and cut or tear the kale leaves into chip-size pieces or smaller. Then get them as dry as possible either using a salad spinner, patting them dry, or a good old-fashioned extended air dry. Package the kale in desired portions in freezer-friendly containers such as ziplock bags or reusable silicone bags like these. Keep in mind that it will likely clump together, so portion it in a way that fits your intended use.
Got it? Now, peas don’t kale my vibe.
All in all, kale is a fun, easy, and rewarding crop to grow. You can grow kale in any climate, especially once you figure out the best variety and time of year. I hope you picked up some valuable tips on growing kale today, and have a kale-r harvest in your future! Please feel free to ask any questions, and spread the kale love by sharing this article. As always, thank you for reading!
I am growing blue scotch curled kale and have one plant that I sowed last year in October. It is now about 2 ft tall on the most unusual trunk that has grown into a wavy fan-shape. The older it gets, the more “waves” grow horizontally. It is so beautiful and unusual.
It only gives me hundreds of small leaves now. I haven’t tried them for taste. Does that mean that it is time to pull the plant or should I just keep letting it grow?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Kelli, we have seen that growth formation in our kale as well as our romaine lettuce. It is fun to let kale grow really tall but by then, it is usually time to move on at that point as the leaves are usually slightly more bitter and the plant seems more prone to succumb to aphids and other pests. If you are in a mild climate, it is a great time to plant more kale to last you through a couple more seasons, hope that helps and have fun growing!
This was a great blog! Pieces of information with pictures always attract me to read more! And you even use fantastic photos accommodated with tips. Anyway, thank you so much for this!
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
That’s great to hear Eden and thanks for reading!
I wanted to try the greens ferment. But all I have is kale and Swiss chard growing do you think that will work ? Or will it be too mushy because I don’t have crispier vegggies?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Sharon, check out our Super Green Sauerkraut Recipe w/ Garlic, Turmeric & Ginger article. We recommend adding at least one crunchier vegetable like bok choy or cabbage as it will greatly help with the texture of the ferment. Good luck and let us know how it works out for you!
Once my kale has started popping out yellow flowers, does that mean it is considered to have “bolted”? Is this plant’s end coming soon?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Hi Lorena, yes that means your plant has went to flower or has bolted. However, we have continued to grow and harvest from plants that have went to flower for some time. If your plants have been around for awhile, it is the natural process of its life to create seed for the following seasons. If your plants are young and they either didn’t get enough sun or it got too hot too quickly, they likely bolted. Hope that helps clarify a few things for you, good luck and happy gardening!
Your article was very helpful! It is well written, educational, and thorough! Thank you! I will be following and reading more ☺️
My only question is, how can I catch it before it bolts? What should I be looking for?
Aaron (Mr. DeannaCat)
Thank you very much Lune, we hope it helps you grow some amazing kale plants! Unfortunately there isn’t a lot you can do once the plant starts to bolt, you will first notice it going into flower or bolting when the leaves start to become more pointy and flowers start to grow from the inner crown of the plant. Protecting the plant from temperature swings will help keep the plant from bolting as long as it gets enough sunlight as well. Hope that helps and good luck!
Well, now Mrs. Deanna! Thanks to you, I now know how to successfully grow kale that is delicious and prolific–Very Very Very prolific. So now that I know how to saute kale and make kale chips, I’m hoping that you will give us some more recipes using kale (maybe something to serve over rice??). I have my Cousin’s Caldo Verde soup recipe but didn’t have (until just now) an order in for Portuguese Kale seeds. So until those seeds arrive, I’m on the hunt for more kale recipes. Thanks for all your guidance and support!