Kale used to be a despised leafy vegetable that people only ate when they had to, but it has increased dramatically in popularity and become one of the most trending leafy greens.
The reason for this is most likely that people learned how nutritious it is and also discovered its versatility in cooked and raw dishes. It can be eaten raw in salads, sauteed, baked into chips, fried, steamed, and so on.
There are also quite a few varieties to choose from, each with a slightly different flavor and texture. Lacinato kale is one of the most popular varieties for taste and can easily be grown in your garden or in containers.
Here’s more about lacinato kale and a complete guide to growing and harvesting it.
A Closer Look at Kale
Kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala) is a leafy green vegetable that belongs to the Brassica family (also called the cabbage family). It’s closely related to cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and collard greens.
Not only does it look pretty growing in the garden, kale is also highly nutritious. It’s packed with nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and potassium as well as a good amount of fiber and protein.
Kale is a very nutritious vegetable that has become a popular addition to smoothies, green juices, salads, and many cooked dishes. It’s also very easy to grow at home.
You can grow kale as an annual in almost any location, but it will only be winter hardy in USDA hardiness zones 7 and up.
One of the best parts about kale for gardeners is that it’s a biennial. This means it doesn’t flower until its second season of growing, so you don’t have to worry about your plants bolting and the leaves losing flavor.
However, kale is definitely a cool season crop. Leaves will start to yellow and become bitter once the weather starts getting hot. Planting and growing it at the right time can make all the difference.
What Is Lacinato Kale?
Lacinato kale is a specific type of kale that also goes by the names of dinosaur kale and Tuscan kale. It’s an heirloom variety that comes from Italy (hence the name ‘Tuscan’ kale) and is thought to have been first grown as far back as the 18th century.
The leaves of lacinato kale are much darker than other varieties. They look almost blue-green or black-green, depending on growing conditions.
Many people think that lacinato kale looks very decorative with its long, almost palm-like leaves that are bumpy and ruffle under at the edges. The leaves can grow as long as 3 feet, although they do start to get tough if left to grow that long.
Lacinato kale is a specific type of kale with deep green, bumpy leaves and a tasty yet mild flavor. The leaves work well both raw and cooked as long as you remove the tough center stem.
Picked when they are smaller, lacinato kale leaves are tender and have a great, mild flavor. You can eat them raw or cook them in a wide variety of dishes. This is the preferred variety of many chefs because of its versatility and flavor.
As far as taste goes, the leaves are often described as earthy, nutty, and a bit sweet. Lacinato has less bitterness than other varieties, and the bitterness can be taken out by blanching.
Lacinato kale is also easy to grow and can be grown strictly in a vegetable garden or mixed into your landscape because of its ornamental appearance.
Lacinato Kale vs. Other Varieties
Even though lacinato kale is one of the most popular varieties to eat and grow, there are several other types that each have unique characteristics.
Here’s a guide to some of the other main varieties so that you can decide whether you want to go with lacinato kale or something else.
- Curly Kale– This is probably the most commonly grown and sold type of kale, in part because of its very decorative and curly leaves. The leaves tend to be a bit less tender than lacinato but can be massaged with salt and salad dressing to make them softer for raw uses or cooked many ways. Two good varieties of curly kale are ‘Vates’ and ‘Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch’.
Curly kale is a variety you’ll often see for sale in grocery stores and used as a garnish at restaurants because of its decorative look. It has good flavor but is less tender than lacinato kale.
- Red Russian– Red Russian kale has crinkled leaves that are similar to curly kale. The leaves are a light green with striking red-purple stems and veins. It’s a good variety to use raw or to saute in a pan and tends to be more slug resistant than other varieties in the garden.
- Redbor– If you want a highly decorative kale, look no further than Redbor. It has very curly and frilly leaves and is a beautiful deep red to purple color. The leaves work well either raw or cooked.
- Baby Kale– Baby kale is not a specific variety of kale. It just means that the leaves have been picked when they are very small and tender. These are the best leaves for raw uses and salad mixes.
How to Grow Lacinato Kale
In general, kale is an easy garden vegetable to grow, but it can get some severe pest problems and needs to be planted at the right time of year. Here’s a guide to growing it successfully.
When to Plant Kale
Whether you want to grow it from seed or transplants, timing is critical if you want a good harvest. Kale grows well in cool weather and will rapidly fade in the heat of summer. This gives you a few planting options based on where you live.
Kale does not like heat and needs to be planted so that it can grow in cold weather. Try pairing your green lacinato kale with something like this deep purple Redbor kale for a contrasting look.
In the north and other regions with cold winters and hot summers, the main planting times are spring and fall.
Many gardeners opt for spring planting since they are eager to get a kale harvest as soon as possible. The good news is that kale can go in your garden very early: about 3-5 weeks before the last frost. You can also start seeds indoors to get a headstart.
Despite the fact that spring planting is popular, you may be more successful by planting it in the fall. Certain pests are easier to control at that time of year, and the cool fall weather is ideal for kale. The leaves also taste better as the weather turns cold and frosty.
If you live somewhere with mild winters, you also have the option of a late fall planting so that you can harvest over the winter months.
Growing from Seed Indoors
You have the option of starting lacinato kale from seed either indoors or outdoors. However, if you want to do a spring planting, starting seeds indoors is better because your plants will get a headstart and hopefully mature before hot weather comes.
Plan to start your seeds 6-8 weeks before your last average frost date in the spring (or 3-4 weeks before planting in the fall).
Giving your plants a headstart by sowing seeds indoors is a good strategy for most gardeners. They’ll grow more quickly in your garden, which means you’ll get to harvest leaves sooner.
Here’s a list of what you’ll need:
- Lacinato kale seeds
- Seed starting trays or smaller cell packs
- Good quality seed starting mix
- Grow lights (or a sunny windowsill)
- Plastic domes (optional)
- Small fan (optional)
To start with, you’ll want to get your seed starting mix damp by mixing it with water. The soil should just form clumps when you squeeze it with your hands and shouldn’t be dripping wet.
Fill your trays or other containers with the damp soil mix. Make holes that are ¼-½ inch deep in each cell of the trays. Then, sow one seed per cell, and cover them up with more seed starting mix.
Water your seeded trays well. If you have plastic domes, put them over your trays to keep the soil moist during germination and place the trays somewhere safe at room temperature.
Kale seeds usually sprout up in about a week. Make sure the soil stays moist during this time, and remove the plastic domes as soon as you see seedlings sprouting up. You can then move the trays under grow lights or by a sunny window.
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Keep your seedlings watered as they grow, but don’t get the leaves wet because this can cause a fungal disease known as damping off. You can also run a fan on them a few times a day to help keep fungal pathogens from attacking your plants.
Harden off your seedlings a week before planting them outside by taking them to a sheltered outdoor spot during the day and bringing them back in at night.
Growing from Seed Outdoors
You can direct sow lacinato kale seeds outdoors several weeks before your last average frost date in spring or when the soil temperature reaches about 45°F. For sowing at other times of the year, plant about 2 months before you want to harvest.
Before sowing your seeds, you’ll want to get your planting site prepared first. You can do this by weeding, getting rid of rocks and debris, and amending with compost as needed.
Then, sow your seeds ¼-½ inch deep and about 8-10 inches apart. Cover them up with soil and water the area where you planted seeds well. Be sure to keep this area from drying out over the next week or two as the seeds germinate.
Once you see seedlings pop up, let them grow for about two weeks before thinning them to a spacing of 18-24 inches apart. Feel free to eat the extras!
Mature kale plants can take pretty cold temperatures, but you may want to protect smaller seedlings with row covers during an unexpected hard frost.
While your seedlings are still small, you may want to have some floating row covers on hand to cover them if temperatures dip down into the low 20s.
Planting Tips and Growing Conditions
Whether you’re starting them from seed or planting little seedlings, try to give your lacinato kale a spot that gets full sun. However, it will tolerate partial shade, and this may be preferred in warm, dry regions.
Well-drained and nutrient-rich soil will give you the healthiest plants. If your soil is poor or doesn’t drain well, mix in some compost to lighten it and to add fertility.
Kale plants can get quite large: 2-3 feet tall and wide. Make sure you space them far enough apart to avoid fungal diseases that come from damp conditions and poor air circulation.
If you want to grow them in containers, your plants won’t get quite as large but will still be productive. Use a good quality potting soil with lots of organic matter and plant in deep containers with only one kale plant per pot.
Kale plants do get larger than you might expect, so make sure you give them plenty of space to bush out. Container grown kale will be smaller but can still be productive.
Caring for Lacinato Kale
Kale is a pretty easy plant to care for if you’ve planted it at the right time of year and in the right location.
Consistently moist soil is a must for keeping leaves tender and less bitter. Your plants need about 1-1 ½ inches of water a week. If they aren’t getting enough from rainwater, supplement by watering deeply once a week.
Mulching your plants can be helpful for keeping moisture in the soil and keeping weeds down. However, mulch also attracts slugs, especially during wet weather. Wait to mulch until late spring or early summer when the weather dries up a bit.
Like other leafy greens, lacinato kale feeds heavily on nitrogen. Use a slow release or liquid fertilizer that’s high in nitrogen to ensure lots of healthy, tasty leaves.
The biggest difficulty you’re likely to have when growing kale is dealing with all the insects that want to eat it. See tips for this in the next section on pests.
Caring for lacinato kale is pretty easy, but you may get frustrated when worms start appearing on your plants and start eating through the leaves. Use floating row covers as a preventative measure to keep them away.
Pests and Problems
Kale can have a variety of pest problems. Cabbage loopers, cabbage worms, slugs, aphids, and flea beetles all love to feed on the leaves.
Cabbage loopers, cabbage worms, and slugs have the biggest potential to do major damage to your plants. Slugs can be deterred by avoiding mulch until the weather has dried out and putting crushed eggshells around your plants. As a last resort, you can also try slug traps.
Many gardening articles recommend handpicking worms and loopers off your plants as soon as you see them, but this is very time consuming and usually a losing battle. Both worms come from moths that lay eggs on the leaves of kale, and they can easily lay dozens of eggs on one plant.
The best trick for keeping these pests away is to use floating row covers over your kale plants. These covers let sunlight and water in but will keep the flying moths out. Just make sure you use stakes or some kind of weight to hold the covers down so there aren’t any gaps.
Besides these hungry pests, members of the cabbage family are also prone to fungal diseases like clubroot and black rot.
Wet conditions can make your kale plants more likely to develop a fungal disease. Space them properly to get good air circulation and avoid getting the leaves wet when you water them to prevent this.
The best defense against these diseases is to space plants properly and keep your soil slightly acidic. If plants get infected, remove and destroy them (don’t compost them). Also, make sure you practice crop rotation.
Harvesting Lacinato Kale
When to Harvest
Plants take about two months to fully mature, but you can start picking leaves as soon as they are the size you want them to be. Baby kale and smaller leaves will be more tender and are best raw. Larger leaves can be tougher but hold up better to being cooked.
Frosts and temperatures down into the mid-20s will actually make kale leaves sweeter without harming your plants. However, ice and temperatures below this can kill your plants, so make sure you harvest them before this happens.
Leafy greens are best picked in the morning before the dew has completely evaporated.
How to Harvest
Lacinato kale leaves are easy enough to snap off by hand, but you can also use scissors or sharp garden clippers to get a clean cut.
Harvest several leaves from each plant, starting with the lower (and older) leaves. Avoid harvesting more than half of a single plant at a time so that the plants can recover and keep growing. Also, avoid cutting the center stem unless you are making a final harvest.
Use your kale leaves as soon after harvesting as possible because they will start to wilt after being cut off the plant. Stick them in a jar of cold water to keep them fresh for longer.
Get your kale leaves in a cool spot as soon as you can after harvesting so they don’t start to wilt. You can discard any yellow or extremely tough leaves.
Storing Lacinato Kale
It’s best to use your lacinato kale quickly after harvesting it for the best flavor, but it can be stored for a week or two in your refrigerator.
To keep your kale fresh after harvesting it, bunch it together and place the ends of the cut stems in a jar of cold water. This will help keep it from wilting for a few hours and possibly a whole day if there’s going to be time between harvesting and cooking it.
For longer term storage, wrap bunches of kale loosely in a damp paper towel. Place the bunches in a produce bag or perforated plastic bag and store in the crisper drawer in your fridge. It should keep 1-2 weeks this way.
For even longer term storage, you would need to blanch and freeze your kale. It will lose its crisp texture but will still work well in soups, casseroles, and so on.
Besides being edible and nutritious, kale can also be highly ornamental. Try planting a few decorative varieties to give your garden a unique look in spring or fall.
Besides being a nutritious vegetable, kale is also taking off as an ornamental plant.
Some gardeners will use lacinato kale as an ornamental and edible plant due to its structure and deeply colored leaves. If you want to venture further into the world of ornamental kale, here are a few varieties to check out:
- White Kamome
- Coral Queen
- Purple Peacock
- White Peacock
And, yes, you can eat ornamental kale, although it may not be quite as tasty as the varieties grown for their flavor!
Now that you know how to grow lacinato kale, why not give it some friends like carrots, beets, or lettuce? And if you’re growing in a small space, check out these creative vegetable garden layouts to maximize your garden area.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.