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Brassica oleracea var. Acephala

A slight and pretty frost on Black Cabbage kale and the compost bays behind

Kale is loose-leaf cabbage, in many shapes and colours. This reflects in the name ‘Acephala‘, which means without head, contrasting to the cabbage group ‘Capitata‘, with head.

Kale has been around since Roman times or before. Its ability to stand temperatures below even  -10° C/14° F makes it a valuable winter staple. On the other hand, kale plants struggle in excessive summer heat. This reflects their coastal origins.

Harvest period

  • Days from seed to first harvest: 50 for salad leaves, 70 for cooking
  • Best climate is moist, temperate, cool rather than hot. It grows a little in mild winters and survives cold ones.
Lerchenzungen kale in November
Snow falling on Cavolo Nero kale, nine months since transplanting and with 6.5 kg/14.3 lb of harvests so far
In temperate climates, brassicas often grow most healthily in autumn; here are red and green kales, cabbages, Brussels sprouts and radish – 29th October at Lower Farm

Why grow them

I bracket kale with chard, as a super-reliable vegetable banker, although with more pests. At almost any time in a long growing season, you can harvest a few leaves of kale. There are not many new ones in the winter, but each one is precious. Every winter harvest feels special.

Choose from the many different varieties in a seed catalogue, whose variations include all these possibilities:

  • Leaves good for salad or cooking
  • Leaf colour from green to crimson
  • Texture from smooth to curly
  • Either productive green or less productive ornamental
  • Harvests from tall plants, or short ones
  • Spring harvests of small shoots with flower buds, similar to broccoli

Homegrown kale has stronger flavours than bought kale and excellent nutrition. Vitamins C and K, for example, are at a maximum in fresh leaves, which also boast 3% protein.

Salad leaves, harvested outside in a mild January –  kales, purslane, land cress, lambs lettuce, beets, mustards and chervil
Roasted Brussels sprouts and kale at the winter solstice

Eat raw and cooked

You can prepare kale in so many ways.

  • If you like it raw, grow tender flat-leaved varieties such as Red Russian and the Ethiopian types, also Sutherland from Scotland.
  • Roasted kale tastes exotic, partly depending on how much oil you add – a high amount results in kale crisps.

Most kale leaves have a fibrous stalk up their middle. Simply cut off the two tender sides and discard the stalk for compost.

1st September – a selection of varieties, all sown on 5th July, eight weeks previously
Westlandse kale in December snow – this is an extra hardy variety
Scarlet kale in early January, eight months since sowing; it has given five months of harvests

Pattern of growth

You can grow kale as an annual plant, sown in spring and removed in the autumn. It is in fact biennial and flowers in the second spring, as long as it survives winter. The flowering shoots are super tasty, like mini broccoli.

There are a few varieties of perennial kale. This term causes confusion when sometimes misapplied to varieties that are slow to flower and behave with a perennial tendency. See the photo of Oisin Kenny in Galway, Ireland – the last photo at the end of the lesson.

True perennial kale does not flower and therefore makes no seeds. As a result, it is propagated from stem cuttings, an easy process that takes only a few weeks. If you don’t have stems, you may be able to buy a rooted plant, grown from a stem.

Daubenton perennial kale – this stem has been in a glass of water for three weeks
Taunton Deane kale – new stems just picked, for propagation in early autumn
Taunton Deane kale plants, rooted and ready to be transplanted, with broad-leaved sorrel at the back

Suitable for containers/shade?

Kale tolerates shade, though best to plant in the sun.

For growing in containers, select a dwarf variety. Dwarf curly kale, for example, is nicely compact and its small size means that it won’t be diminished by a restricted root volume.

Kale’s rapid rate of growth and continual harvests do come at a price. They have a great need for moisture and, after the initial flush of growth, you need to feed plants in containers (though not in beds).


Cavolo Nero, or Black Cabbage and Tuscan kale, grow dark green, long leaves, on plants of varied height according to the seed supplier. The leaf texture is savoyed.

Kalettes are half kale and half Brussels sprouts, a modern hybrid. Tall and vigorous plants grow large harvests in the dead of winter. They are super tasty –  pigeons love them too! Taunton Deane kale plants, rooted and ready to be transplanted, with broad-leaved sorrel at the back

22nd September – this Cavolo Nero kale was sown on 6th June and is a lovely selection by the seed farmer, a compact plant with fat leaves
Kalettes on the left and a thin-leaved Cavolo Nero on the right
2nd May – Thousand Head kale, after giving many shoots, which are equivalent to broccoli

Lerchenzungen (‘Lark’s tongue‘) is perhaps the German equivalent of Tuscan kale with long leaves, except that they are curly and lighter green. An equivalent variety with broader leaves is Westlandse.

Hungry Gap grows its green, mostly flat leaves for longer in spring, before flowering quite late in spring.

Ethiopian kales are flat-leaved and tender, good in salad. Also, they flower in the first year so the harvest period is short, in a temperate climate at least.

Hungry Gap kale variety on 15th April, and no flowers yet
10th September – Lerchenzungen on the left and Ethiopian kales on the right
A different view of the same plants on 7th October – we have picked the Ethiopian kale more regularly, for salad leaves

Dwarf Curly and Dwarf Red Curly grow as named, into bushy plants with leaves better cooked than raw.

Sutherland is a tall, green flat-leaved kale with tender leaves.

Red Russian (‘Ragged Jack’) has lovely pink tinges to its green, serrated leaves. They are tender raw, and the flower shoots in spring are especially prolific and tasty. Red Devil has lovely red stalks in smooth and tender leaves, on small plants.

Red Russian on 26th January – it has many small leaves after losing the main stems to gall midge
9th December, after twisting out kale plants from the two trial beds – dig bed on the left and no dig on the right
Red Devil kale in November, three months since being transplanted after summer beetroot

Thousand Head does indeed make several stems from one plant – not so good if you want large leaves. However, in spring it’s excellent, with many tender shoots from one plant.

Redbor and Darkbor are dark red, tall hybrids.

Scarlet kale is not a hybrid, less tall and a little less crimson.

Recently, breeding has worked to create gorgeous colours. Candy Floss and Emerald Ice look amazing and taste good.

Pretty Candy Floss kale from Mr Fothergill’s on 17th September, after regular harvests for seven weeks
Emerald Ice kale, also from Mr Fothergill’s; both varieties grow striking leaves but they are not the most tender to eat

Taunton Deane is a tall perennial kale, possibly discovered in Somerset. Plants can continue to grow for more than a decade. It has now been nine years since I rooted the small stem of my oldest plant – the photo below shows you its reclining, stable posture.

Daubentons is a French perennial, mostly under 1 m/3.3 ft high and with many stems, plus smaller and slightly more tender leaves than Taunton.

Nine-year-old plant of Taunton Deane kale on 17th January – it has been giving harvests through winter
Two-year-old Daubenton kale, after cleaning in February
18-month-old Taunton Deane pictured in May, when leaves are at their healthiest of the year

sow & propagate
Transplant - Size, time of year, Spacing, support
container growing
Prune and train plants/thin fruit
Harvest times and method
Potential problems


Clearing usually happens in spring. Before that, you can enjoy the tender flowering shoots, equivalent to small broccoli, until in time they become thinner and more fibrous.

The thick main stems are best twisted round and round, until most roots have snapped off and remain in the soil. Or use a sharp spade to cut around the base of stems.

Lerchenzungen on 29th March, a great time for spring leaves and no flowering yet
By mid-April, the kale has grown tall and is about to flower
Oisin Kenny with perennialised kale in Galway

Prepare and plant

For all winter brassicas, I recommend adding compost for the year ahead during winter, while they are still growing, and up to six months before final clearing. Here are the advantages:

  • It’s easy with kale because the cropping leaves are well above soil level and plants are widely spaced.
  • Soil organisms are nourished through winter and protected from extremes of weather.
  • Spread 2.5 cm/1 in of compost any time from mid-autumn. If it happens to be lumpier than usual, that is fine, because weather softens lumps before spring.
  • In spring, the turnaround time is quick, between clearing kale and starting another vegetable.

Follow with

There is little ground preparation, except to walk on the beds if you had to lift soil when removing each plant.

Kale’s finishing time in spring means you can follow with any other vegetable – perhaps not a brassica, although it’s possible.