When to Plant Kale: Hint, it’s a Great Fall Crop!

If you are planning on planting kale this season, you may be wondering when the best time of season is to start sowing. While kale can be planted during any growing season, it's often thought of as one of the best fall crops for your garden. In this article, gardening expert Merideth Corhs walks through when to plant kale, and why it's such an excellent fall crop!

planting kale in the fall

Kale may not be the thing you drool over when you plan your garden, but it’s a beautiful cool-weather crop to grow at home. Not only is it a great option for cooler climates, but did you know that kale’s flavor improves when planted in the fall? Cool weather brings out subtle changes in sweetness and tenderness that don’t develop in the spring or summer.

The great news is that kale is remarkably easy to grow at home. Unlike many vegetables that require constant maintenance, kale thrives on a bit of neglect. It’s susceptible to a few pesky bugs (like the cabbage worm), but you can easily manage them by using basic organic gardening techniques.

Once harvested, you can enjoy kale in many ways. So, if you are looking to find the perfect time to plant kale this season, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s take a deeper look at kale planting times, and what you can expect in your garden!

The Short Answer

Cold-hardy and frost-resilient, kale is an easy member of the brassica family to grow in your home garden. While you can theoretically get away with growing kale most of the year, you’ll enjoy the best flavor when you plant it in the fall. Kale will become wonderfully sweet and a little nutty when it experiences cooler temperatures and even a light frost.

The Long Answer

Whether you plant Common Curly kale, Tuscan kale, Dinosaur kale, Red Russian kale, or any other variety, they all belong to the brassica family. You may not know it, but kale is a close cousin to other brassicas like broccoli, bok choy, and mustard greens.

With its designation as a super-food, it has become a staple in health-conscious households throughout the country.

Growing Conditions

Learning how to grow kale at home is incredibly simple. It can be grown as a sizeable full-sized bunching plant that you can harvest from incrementally, or you can grow baby kale for a more tender bite. You can purchase transplants of larger plants, or you can sow seeds directly in the garden. You can even grow kale microgreens indoors in flats under grow lights.

No matter what type of kale you’re interested in growing, the plants all have the same growing conditions and nutrient needs.

Sunlight

Brassicas growing in full sun in the garden
Kale can grow in partial shade or full sun but requires at least 6 hours of sunlight per day.

Kale is versatile and can grow well in full sun and partial shade conditions. But you’ll see the best growth when the plant sees six or more hours of direct sun.

Remember that the sun’s angles will shift throughout the seasons. Be sure to measure how much sun your garden receives through the fall and winter to ensure that it’s not overly shaded when the days are shorter, and the sun sits lower in the sky.

Water

Brassica leaves watered
It is recommended to water regularly, about an inch and a half a week.

Kale needs a consistent amount of water to stay healthy and will do best with one to one-and-a-half inches per week, depending on your local weather and climate. Be sure to water your plants regularly, so the soil stays evenly moist.

You can always check the moisture level of your soil by sticking your index finger down a couple of inches. If the soil is dry, it’s time to water. If it’s still wet, you can wait another day or two. With cool temperatures, moist soil will help the leaves stay sweet and crisp.

Soil

sprouts germinated in the soil
Kale prefers to grow in loamy, rich in organic matter soil.

Like most brassicas, it grows best when planted in loamy, organically rich, well-draining soil. Unlike fruiting vegetables, it needs soil and fertilizer with a high nitrogen content to support healthy leaf growth.

Kale isn’t a heavy feeder but will benefit from good compost or slow-release fertilizer to support them throughout the growing season. If you struggle with nitrogen content, plant nitrogen replenishing kale companions like green beans.

Mulch

curly kale plant with straw mulch in the garden
Mulch keeps the soil moist and creates a weed barrier.

Mulch is an essential addition to any vegetable garden. It helps the soil stay cooler and retain moisture. It also acts as an effective weed barrier.

While you can use many materials like mulch, kale doesn’t love woody materials. Instead, opt for a fluffier mulch like stray, hay, or leaves. If you are sticking with organic kale this season, there are plenty of organic mulching options for vegetable gardens.

Best Times For Planting

woman planting brassica in the ground
It is best to plant kale in late summer to enjoy the harvest in autumn and winter.

Kale is a cool weather crop, so it will grow best when planted in late summer or early autumn for a fall/winter crop. You can continuously sow or transplant every two weeks to maintain a steady stream of harvestable plants. Remember, it will continue growing even with a light frost, so you can enjoy this healthy brassica well into the winter.

If you are going to germinate seeds, keep in mind that kale prefers soil temperatures to be no higher than 70 degrees. The soil will cool to this level when you see consistent daily temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees.

The optimal temperature for growing outdoors is between 40 and 65 degrees, but it can tolerate temperatures far below freezing if the plant is healthy and robust.

Space full-sized bunching plants 18-24 inches apart from one another. You can seed baby kale and microgreens like lettuce.

A Cold Hardy Vegetable

Green plant in a vegetable garden
The taste improves significantly after a few nights of frost.

Kale is a very hardy brassica. It can survive winters in USDA zones 7-10, but you can help it out in colder climates by using a thick layer of mulch or row covers. Mulch and row covers will help keep soil and ambient temperatures around the plant a little warmer than the outside air.

Growing your kale throughout the winter will give you the best-tasting kale possible. The starches in the leaf are transformed into sugars as freezing temperatures hit. After several nights of frost, the taste will improve dramatically.

Using these kinds of frost protection measures will allow your kale to remain hearty in temperatures as cold as -10 degrees!

If you do plant to grow throughout the winter, be sure to plant your first crop in late summer so the plants have a chance to become established before the frost hits. Younger plants are more fragile but will still do fine under a row cover.

How Long Does it Take to Grow?

kale growing in the sunny garden
Kale matures in 50-65 days, but you can harvest baby kale leaves in 20 days.

Kale is a fast-growing vegetable. Most varieties mature in 50-65 days if grown from seed. If you transplant a young plant, the timing will be faster by several weeks. If you’re interested in harvesting baby kale, leaves should be ready in as little as 20-30 days.

Microgreens will be ready for cutting in just 10-15 days after sowing. There are great – and relatively inexpensive – microgreen kits you can buy to enjoy it this way all year long.

Plan to succession plant every two weeks if you want to enjoy a continual harvest of baby kale or microgreens.

Harvesting

man harvesting brassica from garden
Start picking the oldest leaves from the lowest part of the plant.

Mature plants will continue to grow up a stalk, creating new leaves along the way. Pick the oldest leaves from the lowest section of the plants first. Move your way up the stem, taking as many leaves as you want.

Be sure to leave at least 4-6 leaves at the growing crown of each plant. Harvesting in this way will allow it to continue to grow and produce new leaves. Overwintered plants will eventually bolt, letting you know it’s time to pull it and make space for new crops.

For baby kale or microgreens, cut the leaves with sharp sheers once they reach a height of 3-4 inches. Ensure you leave several inches of the stems behind to allow new growth to develop. Adding a light nitrogen-rich fertilizer and water at this time will encourage quick regrowth.

Final Thoughts

Kale is a beginner-friendly vegetable that anyone can grow at home. Not only will you save quite a bit of money over the long run, but your fall and winter harvest will also taste better and be more tender than anything you can find at the grocery store. Take some time to look at all the kale varieties available and have some fun!

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