Kale used to be one of the only fresh green vegetables that could be grown in the UK over winter and tough little numbers like Hungry Gap would brave out the winter frosts, snow and wind. The trouble is that toughness to survive a winter storm lead to toughness on the plate and once supermarkets started flying in vegetables from around the world people turned away from their less palatable staples. Kale was gradually abandoned and started to sink out of peoples memory.
It took The River Cafe which opened in the late 1908’s to bring kale back in to the spotlight but not any kale……..This was a kale of which we’d never seen in the UK before or if we had it had long gone out of production. The kale was Cavolo Nero, an Italian variety, almost inky black with wide open leaves and much less ribs than you would get in home grown varieties. This made it much more tender and easy to cook. It also had a fine taste, a little less bitter than the very hardy varieties so more pleasant to those that brassicas a struggle. Cavolo Nero made kale cool again and then when Gweneth Paltrow and other celebrities started touting kale as a superfood the rest, as they say, is history.
However Cavolo Nero is worth the hype. It really is a great kale to grow, looks pretty too so can be used in a potager. It is fairly robust so will stand through all but the worst winters. My only gripe with it is that it is beloved of whitefly which congregate under the leaves. If that is a problem with your plot they can be hard to wash off which means when I harvest you might see me waving the harvest around in the air to get rid of them! However a combination of cool weather and plenty of marigolds kept them away this year.
In the Kitchen
Pick the leaves from the bottom up so you are harvesting the older leaves first. Cavolo Nero is acknowledged to be one of the best kales for cooking. You can lightly steam or stirfry, removing the central rib before cooking and then slicing finely. You could use it to make crispy “Fried Seaweed”
Yield and plant health
Like many kales, Cavolo Nero is a tough cookie and it is hard not to get a crop in temperate climates. The plants are generous in size and one plant should provide one meal every couple of weeks from September all the way through to the following April. Birds, butterflies and white fly are likely to be your biggest problem. The first two can be netted against. For white fly I plant plenty of French marigolds around which have a strong smell which deters many pests and their pollen attracts beneficial predators. If you are allowed a hose where you garden you can knock them off with a strong spray.
You can start kale in pots in a green house or outdoors. Sow in Spring from March all the way up to early summer, 1cm deep. In pots sow 1-3 seeds in a 3 inch pot. Outdoors sow thinly in rows 15cm apart. Thin seedlings to one every 7cm or 1 per 3 inch pot. Water lightly until it is time to plant out.
Brassicas can fall victim to cabbage white butterfly or birds. Kale seems a bit less preferred but if you are netting other brassicas then it might be better to shelter your kale too.
In April/May once the plants have several true leaves plant out in final positions. Kale are not too fussy about where they go but they do need a firm soil so you might struggle with a very sandy soil. They will appreciate a feed of blood fish and bone or another organic fertiliser in the spring and a mulch to conserve water.
Pot grown plants will need a period of a week being moved outdoors during the day and brought inside at night to harden off. Plant 40 – 50 cm apart, firming in well to stop the plants rocking in high winds water in well and make sure that they are well watered until established. After this water only if it has been dry for several weeks.