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"How to Grow",  All Things Garden

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.) 


Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links to products for your convenience, such as to items on Amazon. Homestead and Chill gains a small commission from purchases made through those links, at no additional cost to you.

DeannaCat is standing next to raised garden beds set against the side of the house. There are squash plants, calendula, tomato, pepper plants, and kale plants growing amongst the beds.  DeannaCat is holding a stalk of one of the kale plants that is growing two feet taller than her head. She is looking downwards towards four chickens who have invaded the garden space and are looking for veggies to eat. When you grow kale it can get quite tall give the right growing conditions.
Ah, our infamous ‘kale trees’ – ha! This is Lacinato kale, some classic Tuscan and some Dazzling Blue. Not all kale grows quite this tall, but given the right conditions and time, it can!


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.


A diagram of a planting calendar for Zone 10, there are various vegetables labeled on one side of the diagram and each one has various color coded lines that are associated with when to start seeds inside, transplant, plant seeds outside, as well as the first and last frost dates.
SubscribePlanting calendars are available for every growing zone in the Homestead and Chill subscriber free garden planning toolkit.


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.


A close up birds eye view image of trays of tender kale, mustard greens, and pea seedlings. Grow kale from seed in containers about a month before you want to transplant it into your garden.
These days, we start the majority of our veggies from seed in our greenhouse and transplant them out later. Yet you could also direct-sow kale outside, start seeds indoors, or purchase nursery seedlings.


Optimal Kale Growing Location


Soil Conditions

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.


Sun

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.


A raised garden bed is shown set against a fence. There is a row of onions planted in the front, kale planted in the middle, and annual flowers planted in the back such as zinnia, calendula, and marigold. Four chickens are walking on the outside of the raised bed.
This raised bed is facing east, so it gets morning to midday sun but then is shaded in the afternoon by the tall westerly fence behind it. The kale was planted as seedlings in March and is still growing now (October). Even though we don’t usually have incredibly hot summers, we did have a few good heat waves. The afternoon shade helped protect the kale from the hottest time of day.
Kale growing in a raised garden bed set against a fence are shown. The kale is growing and reaches almost the top of the fence, there is a golden zinnia plant that is growing past the fence line behind the kale with the setting sun shining in just above the fence on its way down. The kale plants have bare stalks much like a palm tree, showing the leaves that have been harvested throughout its growth.
The same Dazzling Blue kale as the image above, five months later.


Kale Varieties


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.

     
A close up image of the inside of a kale plant, showing the terminal bud. When you grow kale it is important to harvest leaves from the bottom of the plant to the top, if you remove the center growth the plant will not grow as well as it could The leaves of the "Dazzling Blue" kale shown have light purple ribs amongst light green foliage.
‘Dazzling Blue’ Lacinato kale. Isn’t is beautiful?!


  • 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.


The top of a raised garden bed is shown with rows of dino kale, bok choy, and green curly kale. All of the plants are about a foot or two tall and are filling out the entirety of the bed.
Tuscan kale in the front, and White Russian kale in the far back. In this south-facing garden bed, I should have ideally swapped the kale locations and/or put that middle row of bok choy in the very front. Dino/Tuscan kale gets tall quickly, and began to block the sun to the shorter bok choy behind it.


Ongoing Care


Water

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


Raised garden beds are shown at dusk, covered with row covers. The sky is shown in the background, a bright glowing orange sun has illuminated the horizon with shades of pink and purple mixed in. There are various trees and plants that are visible in the dwindling light.
You can find our metal garden bed hoops here, which can be used to support either insect netting, frost cover, or shade cloth to protect the crops below.


Harvesting Kale


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)


DeannaCat is removing some lower leaves from a small kale plant to help promote growth while also collecting a fair amount of the leaves to eat, preserve, or dry into kale chips.
Going around to all these young kale plants to remove the bottom several leaves from each stalk.
DeannaCat holds out a handful of harvest kale leaves as if making a fan of leaves. Sunshine is coming in from the back of the kale, illuminating the normally dark green leaves to bright light green. There are numerous tall kale plants growing in the back of a raised garden bed in the background.
A handful of large mature kale leaves.
Garden beds next to a house are shown, one of the beds has rows of small red radishes growing amongst it. The featured bed has a few small squash plants growing in the front of it while the backside of the bed is lined with tall kale plants that range in height from two to three feet tall. They look like palm trees as their bare stalks show where kale leaves once grew, now the leaves are concentrated towards the top of the plants. There are four chickens outside of the garden bed area, separated by fencing leading into the garden area.  Grow kale for a prolonged harvest of cold hardy vegetables.
Always harvest leaves kale from the underside of the “head” and they’ll keep getting taller! If you look closely, ever notch along the stalk represents a leaf that was previously harvested.


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. 


Related: 


A close up image of the back of a kale leaf that has a cluster of white and green aphids on it.
Aphids hiding on the bottom of a kale leaf. They also often cluster in the center of the newest tender leaves.


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 kale chips after they have been dried are shown. A hand is holding one of the pieces to show how they look once finished. There are specks of yellow and orange seasoning on the dark green kale chip.  Below the featured piece is a bowl full of finished kale chips and a drying rack with the remaining kale chips.
Crunchy homegrown kale chips, seasoned with sea salt, nutritional yeast, olive oil, and homemade garlic powder.


De-stemming kale

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.


A four way image collage on how to de-stem kale. The first image shows a hand holding a piece if kale by the stem, the second hand is pinching the kale stem where the greens are attached. The second image shows a hand holding the isle stem while the second hand is pulling the kale leaf by sliding g it along the stem which tears the leaf portion from the stem. The third image shows one hand holding the lone leftover stem while the other hand is holdingthe hdetached kale leaf. The fourth image shows two hands illustrating a chunk of the leaf that will be torn into a kale chip size portion. Below shows a strainer of de-stemmed kale torn into chip size pieces and a bunch of kale that still needs to be prepped.
Don’t fuss with cutting the stems out with a knife. Simply pinch and strip them out!



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.


DeannaCat is holding a bowl of fresh sautéed garden greens topped with cheese, fresh avocado, and green sauerkraut. Grow kale and use it many different ways.
Homemade green kraut on top of sautéed fresh greens (both made with kale, bok choy, and mustard greens) atop a bed of brown rice with garden avocado and cheese (somewhere under there!)
On a concrete patio surrounded by lush garden beds, Aaron is standing next to and looking up at a very tall kale plant. It has been cut from the base soil line, and with its stalk resting on the patio, stands 9 feet tall. There is a very bare tall stalk that Aaron is holding like a walking stick, with leaves just at the top - like a mini palm tree.
My personal kale tree model. This dazzling blue lacinato kale plant grew and fed us for 10 months, reached 9 feet tall and almost 4 feet in diameter.



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!



DeannaCat signature, keep on growing

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