March 11th, 2009
I got excited a few years ago when I started seeing the slogan “Eat more kale” on t-shirts and bumper stickers. I thought, “How cool is that? There are people out there promoting this amazing brassica.” Anyway, the slogan went from a farmers market promotion to becoming a fashion statement (as much as we do fashion statements in Vermont). But, I don’t think most gardeners are aware of how much this denizen of the frozen wastes has to offer for nearly year round sustenance.
Over-wintered volunteer Siberian-type kale in early May
Kale is superbly well adapted for serious food production in a cold climate garden. I have a naturalized population of Siberian-types and Russian Red-types that originally came from Peters Seeds’ breeding program, over ten years ago (Peters’ The Gulag 95 and Winter Red). By naturalized, I mean that I don’t have to sow it (though I sometimes do) because the plants are allowed to bolt, and reseed themselves. They are very hardy. Only plants that survive the winter here totally unprotected become seed parents for me: no winter mulch, no plastic, no cold frames. I have nothing against the use of season extension devices; but, for breeding purposes, and because of a lazy and miserly streak, I don’t use them. Yes, it’s brutal, but it’s my garden and I don’t want wimps for seed parents.
Kale is biennial, so the plants that survive the winter are a great source of spring salad greens. The new growth in the cool spring weather is tender and sweet. Above is a winter survivor of the Gulag 95 strain, in early May, only a few weeks after it emerged from deep snow.
August 2, volunteers in the path.
I stagger the bloom time to keep the two strains separate for seed production. When the type that I want to get seed from starts blooming, we pick and eat the buds of the other type (think broccoli raab) until the first is done blooming. Depending on the conditions and numbers of plants, I can usually get decent seed from both strains in the same season. There needs to be a good population, so that you can harvest what greens you need without denuding and weakening parent plants, and also to have enough parents for pollination. I find I can get good pollination with a minumum of six parent plants, but closer to twelve is better. The bolting plants do take up a fair amount of garden space, and need to be staked – the Gulag strain has seed stalks 5-6 feet tall, and lots of them.
Same plants October 20, ready for winter.
The problem with garden volunteers is that they frequently pop up in inconvenient places, like the middle of a walkway. Kale volunteers can be easily transplanted, but some of my best plants have been those that popped up vigorously at the very edge of a bed, and for various reasons, I chose to leave them there and work around them, even though it’s a nuisance to have them blocking a walkway.
In the photos above and at right, you can see some fine specimens that popped up between two beds. They did bully the peas on the right somewhat, but not too badly – the peas had a good head start on them.
I digress, so, back to seed harvesting. I don’t like to leave the seed pods too long in the garden, as they are very apt to get moldy and/or shatter. Some shattering is inevitable, and OK, after all, that’s where all those spontaneous little kale plants come from. I have found that I can harvest the best quality seed by cutting the seed stalks when they are still green, as soon as the top pods have filled out, see photo below.
I cut the stalks and lay them onto an old bed sheet to dry on a rack in our breezeway. This is where those crappy polyester bed linens are really great – I watch for them at garage sales. Once the pods are crunchy dry, I thresh them in the bed sheet, and bottle them.
The process of saving kale seed produces an embarassment of riches if all you want is seed to plant, assuming you have good vigorous seed parents. Some years ago when broccoli seed started to be touted for sprouts as a super-health food, I found myself staring at pint and quart canning jars full of kale and pak choi seed, and the light bulb flashed in my brain. So I’m here to tell you, yes, kale seed makes excellent, delicious sprouts. I have no doubt that they have a nutritional analysis equal to or better than broccoli sprouts, and they’re easy for a home gardener to grow and process. Last time I checked, broccoli seed for sprouting was going for $38 a pound at our local co-op. There’s definitely potential for a local commercial crop here!