Kale Is Tasty, Nutritions & Easy To Grow, Which Is Why It Was One Of The First Vegetables to Be “Domesticated”. Kale, Brassica oleracea of various types, is derived from the wild cabbage we still see growing on some of our shorelines today. But it was “farmed” by early man and became a variant that we today call kale. In this article we look at How To Grow Kale.

There are many forms of kale but, before examining them, let’s consider what the name actually means. In Latin brassica is the family of plants that we often refer to as the cabbage family. It consists of more than just cabbages and includes everything from Brussels Sprouts to (perhaps) Chinese kale. And confirm that kale has been around a long time every European language has their own word for Kale. I list these later!

The Oleracea bit comes from the Latin for herb or vegetable and is a form of holeraceus.

The different varieties in the species Brassica oleracea include fodder crops, the acephala varieties which includes collards, tree kale and borecole, the marrow stem kales (which I also know as fodder plants), and are in the medullosa group, sabellica which consists of  curly kales and thousand-head kale from the ramosa group. The alboglabra group include Wok Broc or Chinese Kale.

Each of the above is represented by a range of cultivars. Plus, to confuse things even more, there are also many intervarietal forms.

Acephala means without a head, as opposed to capitata which means with a head! Cabbage are typical brassicas with a head and kale is typical of brassicas without a head.

Ramosa means branched, and that makes sense in terms of perennial kales. However, sabellica and medulossa are harder to define. Sabellica might mean furry or even black and medulossa is unknown to me. If anyone can advise on these last two words I’d love to hear from them.

I’ll go further into the names and derivations of the names later in this article. But what is more important to most gardeners are the types of kale and how it is grown.


Different Types of Kale

The easiest way to classify kale is by its leaf type – remember there is no head!

Many of the kales grown in the UK are the plain flat leaf type such as cow kale, thousand head kale, white and red Russian kales and the closely related Siberian kale. Though called kale Siberian kale is actually a brassica cross and is more accurately described as being Brassica napus.

Then there are the curly kales. Curly kales come in various colours from vivid green to deep purple/reds. In the UK perhaps the best known curly kale is Scotch Kale.

Scotch kale goes under several other names including Vates kale and Blue Curled Scotch kale. As the name suggests this kale has a more blue tinge to its curly leaves. Scotch kales tend to be shorter than some of the other varieties and is biennial (though few people know this and its often grown as an annual).   Scotch kale is the oft preferred variety for kale chips … more on that later.

Next come the knobbly leafed kale varieties.

These knobbly or bumpy leafed varieties include the Lacinato kales such as Tuscan kale, dinosaur kale and Italian kale. Cavolo Nero is a well known Tuscan kale often found on high end restaurant menus as if it were much posher than its peasant origins!

Asian Kales includes Chinese Kale aka Kai lan or Kailan (Brassica oleracea var.alboglabra). So this one isn’t a acephala variety, so arguably not technically a kale. But it’s debatable as the word kale is often ill-defined. And as it’s often called Chinese kale I’ve added it.

In case you wondered, alboglabra means white hairless. And it’s very descriptive as the main rib of the leaf is very white and totally hairless.

Ornamental kale is often referred to as ornamental cabbage. It’s  those brassicas with brightly coloured rosettes of leaves that are grown as a decorative plant. They are actually kales (no head once again) and are actually edible .. though leas palatable than most other kales.

Walking Stick Kale (B. oleracea var longata) aka Jersey walking stick, Tree cabbage, Giant walking stick kale, Giant Jersey kale, Jersey cabbage, Cow cabbage, Long jacks,

This is a very vigorous biennial or short-lived perennial which forms a very tall, straight stem that is topped with a rosette of large, oval, edible, blue-green leaves. It displays open racemes of (typically brassica yellow) flowers from early to late summer.

Finally there are the Perennial kales. These are perhaps the oldest kales still in cultivation. Though not so common today they rarely flower (so are of little interest to seed companies) and are grown from cuttings.

The most well known British perennial kale is Taunton Deane. We also often grow the Daubentons cultivar, though technically that one is French and is named after French naturalist, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton.

The French also have Chou branchu du Poitou Vilmorin-Andrieux. 

In Portugal there are various names for perennial kales,“Couve Poda”, “Couve de Mil Folhas”, “Couve de Pernada”, “Couve de Mil Cabeças”’, “Couve Vegetativa”, and “Couve de Estaca”. These are not to be confused with the Galega kale and tronchuda cabbage which are grown from seed and not perennial. Some sources also quote Portuguese kale as being Crambe maritima, (sea kale) but of course this isn’t a genuine kale, though it is edible and was grown in the UK in the 1700s, and after, as a garden brassica.

Specific Kale Varieties

Asturian Tree Cabbage 

OK, I admit it, this isn’t a true kale, it’s a cabbage. But it can be grown like a kale and is to good to not include!

The stalk goes to about 2 foot high and individual leaves can be harvested in much the same way as kale can be harvested. It even cooks like a kale .. but then most brassicas do.

Its a good hungry gap plant and in Spain is used in a number of specific dishes such as Spanish Garlic Cabbage, Andalusian Cabbage Stew, Caldo Gallego (cabbage soup), Spanish Cabbage etc,

East Friesian Palm Kale

This is a kale from the same group of islands that Friesian cattle come from! It’s a v very tall curly kale that is very hardy .. its cold in that part of the North Sea. The kale is ready to harvest from late summer to the following spring. Its still grown by a few farmers in this part of North Germany but is still quite rare.

True Siberian Kale

This is another very cold hardy kale .. there’s a cold hardy theme amongst kales.

This kale is very tasty and tender, not as prone to go woody like some. It crops throughout the winter.

Sutherland Kale

This is a very hardy kale that copes with weather on the Scottish Islands. It seems to cope with aphids, caterpillars and worse and still come back again and again. This is a kale that nearly went extinct but has been pulled back from the edge of oblivion. It’s well worth trying if you want a hardy variety.

Red Ursa Kale

Distinct colours are another theme amongst some kales. And in this case is reflected in the name. The midribs are red.

It’s a large kale with upright growth that was bred by Frank Morton. Its another rare kale and is sweet and hardy. The season for it is winter and spring. It will eventually bolt but the flowering shoots are recommended as being tender and tasty.

How to Grow Kale

The RHS advise sowing kale seeds from March to June in sun or light shade. In my experience this is not correct. I sow kale all year around. As I write this in December I have young plants growing and more germinating. These younger crops are for growing and harvesting under cover. In my case in a greenhouse where they will be grown as baby kale and harvested as a cut and come again crop, as baby leaves that can be eaten raw.
However, it’s not too early to sow many forms of kale. some actually prefer being sown at this time of year.
I like to start kale for the garden in modules, mainly because it starts quite slow and this saves it occupying a large part of the garden that could be cropping something else.
The alternative is to grow it in a seedbed and transplant it when it is big enough. Farmers  have traditionally planted huge numbers like this and it works even when there is no irrigation. However the plant often loses several leaves and this tends to stress amateurs who think the plant has died. It rarely has.
Provided the root is deep the plant will regrow from the centre (the cocks) and will be fine. Many amateurs decide to water their brassica plants in. And if that makes you feel better, then fine. Do it. But provided the soil has some moisture, there is a good tilth and the plant is deep enough, then the large majority will survive. When I had my market garden I planted all my Brussels sprouts as bare root plants and never irrigated (I didn’t stake them either but thats another story!).
The last method to consider is to direct drill in situ. But, as I said earlier this does tie land up for a long time as the plant is relatively slow to start.
Plants should be planted deep enough to ensure the bottom leaves are just above ground level.

Feeding Kale .. Feeding The Soil

If you are of the dig/rotavate and fertiliser persuasion you will need to add some fertiliser before transplanting. A good base dressing of a balanced fertiliser will be fine. You can top dress with a higher nitrogen fertiliser as the plant grows.

If however, like me, you use No Dig, then the once a year compost dressing is enough to keep the years crops going. It’s part of why I like No Dig, it saves so much later effort.

Harvesting Kale

Kale is the perfect cut and come again crop .. or in this case … snap a few leaves off and come again as it isn’t necessary to cut leaves. With annual kales I normally wait until they are a good size for the variety and then take a few lower leaves from each plant. Once they’ve reached full height I then tend to take the centre out as this encourages side shoot growth and helps the plant bulk up.

But the great thing is that kale is reasonably tolerant of harvesting method.

The perennial kales are even easier. Just pull off the side shoots that are of a decent size, nice and tender. Each time you do they tend to branch and one is eventually replaced with two!

Friends tell me that when their perennial kales get too high they take a knife to them and reduce them in size. This apparently makes them re-shoot with lots of succulent new growth. This makes perfect sense to me and I suspect it prolongs the life of the perennial plants beyond their normal few years. I tend to think of it as being similar to coppicing hazel!

How to Cook Kale

Baby kale can be cropped all year and can be eaten raw in salads . But it’s not the only way to eat it . Steamed, boiled and microwaved are other options.

And don’t forget dried kale leaves, dried in a dehydrator and sprinkled into winter soups . or added to stews or even into kneaded into bread dough. Finally consider it in smoothies where the colour can be dramatic .

Pests And Diseases of Kale

Kales tend to suffer the same pests and diseases as other brassicas. So aphid, whitefly, cabbage white caterpillars, cabbage root fly and birds can cause havoc.

Several of these can be remedied by using fleece or netting over the crop. Large netting will keep out the birds, pigeon being the most troublesome, whilst small mesh nets or fleece will also keep out the butterflies.

A word of warning though. If the net touches the crop the butterflies can still lay through it. Worse still, predators can’t help you control the caterpillars.

Finally there are slugs and snails. The usual remedies should be tried. Slug pubs and nematodes are the best solution in my view. Most other solutions will cost you time, effort to money and not solve the problems.

Kale and Cabbage in History

We know kale has been around for a long time because words for it are embedded in many European languages.

Let’s start with cabbage. It’s a surviving dialect word from Middle English, cawel, perhaps with a nod to the Old Norse kal. Both go back further and probably originate from the Latin. Caulis (as in cauliflower) is the Latin for stem or stalk. The original word used for all these would have been brassica. But that was “posh” Latin and coulis became more common on the common tongue.

This is perhaps also the root for the Old Irish word, cual, and is clearly related to the Greek kaulos which meant a stem, stalk or pole.In the Middle East the Armenians used the word c’awl for stalk or straw whilst back in Europe the  Old Prussian word was kaulan, with the  Lithuanians using káulas.

The Latin caulis is the also apparently the source of several other European words, From the Italian cavolo (as in Cavolo Nero) and the Spanish col to Old French chol which later changed to chou. 

In  Swedish the equivalent word was kål, whilst in Danish it was kaal and or course the Germans used Kohl for a dealer in cabbage. It became a surname as in Chancellor Kohl. The Dutch though cabbage was very Kool!

Kale is obviously related to many of the above words, though in English is a Middle English form of cole. This was more common in northern English and over the border in Scotland.

Cole or Coles is a surname often claimed to be diminutive of the son of Nicolas, though some say it refers to being dark.  I wonder if like Kohl it’s sometimes related to cabbages or kale.


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9 thoughts on “How To Grow Kale, Including Perennial Kale

  1. David Flynn says:

    Hi, is it possible to buy Sutherland kale seeds from you?
    I live in Ireland and can’t find them here.

    Kind Regards

    1. Stefan Drew says:

      Sadly I’m not licences to sell seeds.

  2. chilternseeds says:

    “Bite-sized Gardening: Cultivating big joys in small spaces! 🌱🌼”

  3. vidmate download says:

    Grow kale by planting seeds or seedlings in well-draining soil, providing ample sunlight. Water consistently, and harvest outer leaves for continuous growth. Perennial kale varieties offer a long-lasting addition to the garden, regenerating each year. This nutrient-rich leafy green thrives with minimal care, making it a versatile and valuable addition to your edible landscape.

  4. Matrie says:

    Very useful Info. Most gardening catalogue will supply kales, but not perennial kales or Caucasian spinach. Caucassian

  5. Caroline Lesley says:

    I try to grow most plants in containers. Can you recommend some kale for me to try?

    1. Stefan Drew says:

      I often grow the shorter varieties in large containers outside .. they need to be short so they don’t get bashed by the wind too much! and in my greenhouse I grow the baby kales and Chinese kales.
      The main thing outside is choose a variety that isn’t too tall (such as the perennials) as they would get wind damaged in pots. Any of the others would do.

      1. Gerry says:

        Hi Stephan- what varieties work in windy gardens? I’ve got seeds for Sutherland kale and Asturias cabbage ordered. The winds on the northeast coast are pretty fearsome during winter!

        1. Stefan Drew says:

          Generally speaking brassicas self support without trouble. But my Taunton Deane is now 2 metres high and I stake it as its in an exposed position.
          I don’t really know what to recommend in this case. I think its going to be a matter of seeing what works in your garden. Let me know how it goes.

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