Kale, the wonder vegetable

Besides its ease of growth and longevity, kale packs a powerhouse of nutrients.

The season’s first peas and potatoes are such a taste treat; radishes are fun; and everyone pines for the first tomatoes. But kale, I think, is the vegetable most worthy of praise. Here I am in the greenhouse, watering kale transplants for the garden even as, right behind me, kale in beds planted last August is still yielding mature leaves for salads and cooking.

Kale is one of the few vegetables that tolerate heat in summer, cold in winter and every temperature in between. You can just keep picking the lower leaves as new ones keep growing up top. Neither broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage nor other members of kale’s family can keep up production like that. And other greens, like lettuce, arugula and mustard, send up seedstalks and lose their flavor when days get long or hot. The kale in my greenhouse is now sending up seedstalks, but the leaves taste as good as ever. Even the flowerheads themselves, which are like small, loose heads of broccoli, taste good.

Although one sowing could keep me in leafy greenery almost all year long, I do three sowings. The first, in early spring, is for planting out in a few weeks for eating from late spring on through summer. Usually, I’ll sow again in July for even more greenery well into autumn and, depending on winter temperatures, into winter. The shorter plants of this later sowing are more apt to be covered by snow, which insulates the leaves and keeps them fresh all winter. In August I sow again for planting in the greenhouse, which gives us fresh kale until spring.

If I had to grow only one vegetable, kale might be the one. (I have a friend who does grow only one vegetable, and it is kale.) Besides its ease of growth and its longevity, kale packs a powerhouse of nutrients: vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium and all those other good things found in cabbage kin and vitamin H (I made that last one up, but kale no doubt contains a lot of not-yet-known goodies also).

Seakale (Cramb maritima) is another “kale” I grow. This one might be good eating; I have yet to taste it, even though I had it in the garden for over a decade. Besides being a different plant from kale, it is functionally different in that it has a short season of edibility, in early spring, and it is a true perennial, so potentially never needs replanting. Mine needs replanting this year because, for no apparent reason, it died last year.

Seakale is a salt-tolerant plant native to coastal regions of northern Europe, and it was in those regions that it was first moved into gardens for cultivation as a vegetable. Young shoots need to be blanched (grown in the dark) – by being covered with an upturned clay flowerpot, for example – to make them palatable. The blanched shoots are very tender, so you might never see them in markets. They should make a nice garden or farmden vegetable, though.

I have yet to taste seakale, because each spring I’ve never gotten around to blanching it. Blanching can’t continue too long or the roots will be starved for energy, which comes from sunlight.

Seakale pulled its weight in my garden in other ways than putting food on the table. It livened up one corner of the perennial flowerbed with its silvery-green leaves, from which arose, in early summer, loose sprays of small, silvery-white flowers – almost like the ocean spray in seakale’s native haunts. I never ate the plant because I didn’t want to weaken it and possibly tone down its spring and summer show.

I sowed new seed this week.

Continuing the “kale” theme brings me to another vegetable, a close contender with kale for ease of growth, longevity, flavor, hardiness and nutrition: seakale beet, as it is known in Britain, known as Swiss chard here. I plant chard just as I do kale – except less of it, because it is less nutritious than kale (high oxalate concentration limits its availability of calcium) and slightly less cold-hardy, and I happen not to like its flavor as much.

Seakale beet, or chard, is closely related to beet. In fact, both are the same genus and species. Chard is a beet with extra-large leaves and an extra-small storage root. But beets are another story – an underground one.

It’s time to prune trees and shrubs! I will be holding a pruning workshop at my New Paltz garden on April 13 from 2-5:30 p.m. Learn the tools of the trade and how plants respond to pruning with hands-on pruning of apple trees, blueberry bushes, lilac bushes and other plants. There’s limited space, so pre-registration is necessary. The cost is $55 per person. To register, e-mail [email protected] or call (845) 255-0417.

Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at [email protected] and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at https://www.leereich.blogspot.com. For more on local homes and gardens, go to Ulster Publishing’s homehudsonvalley.com.

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