Welcome back to Kale Basics. Last week we kicked things off by taking a look at everything you need to know about growing great kale. One thing we didn’t get to was the pests you might encounter along the way. Just like humans, there are a myriad of hungry insects who recognize the nutritional value of kale and try to add it to their diet at every opportunity.
The first pest I’ll mention is one that has been a real problem on Gypsy Family Farm this year. The cabbage root maggot is a small white maggot that tunnels into the succulent roots of plants such as cabbage and kale. When large numbers of maggots get into one root the plant invariably dies as a result of the damage. The adults look just like house flies except they are a little smaller and have a dark stripe on the back of their light coloured abdomen. These adults lay eggs as soon as young seedlings emerge so your best defence here is to put floating row covers over all new early season plantings. One lucky aspect of northern gardening is that our summers are generally too short for more than the one spring generation in a season. Destroy all crop residue in the fall to get rid of any over-wintering pests.
Possibly the most common kale pest you will ever encounter is the European cabbage white butterfly, sometimes known simply as cabbage whites. This beautiful white butterfly is seen in such numbers that it often looks like a snowstorm in the garden. The mission of this deceptively lovely creature is to lay its eggs on every mustard-related plant it can find. Kale is closely related to mustard. The eggs hatch into tiny fuzzy green caterpillars that are well camouflaged on their green kale leaves until you finally notice the appearance of ragged holes chewed through the foliage. By this time the caterpillars are usually large enough to find and squish but plenty of aesthetic damage will have already been done. While kale is seldom killed by the cabbage whites, the damage is often quite significant. Fortunately, there is an effective and relatively benign spray called Bt that is widely available and quite effective at killing cabbage whites. Apply the spray when conditions are cool and let it dry on the foliage. Once the caterpillars eat it they stop feeding and soon die. Only the caterpillars who eat the Bt are affected.
Other pests that are attracted to kale include flea beetles, cut worms and slugs. Each of these come with it’s own set of problems and solutions. Unless pest numbers are unusually high, none of these tend to be prolonged issues for healthy kale plants.
So now that we’ve talked about how to grow your kale, the next question is why would you? Kale has a reputation for being a bit of an unpleasantly fibrous and bitter green with few redeeming features. Fortunately, this reputation is quickly being changed as more and more people are discovering all that kale has to offer. While it is true that leaves picked in the heat of summer may leave a lot to be desired, early baby leaf kale is incredible raw or cooked. Varieties like Red Russian (possibly the best tasting kale) remain tender even when environmental conditions become a challenge. Larger leaves harvested after the first fall frosts change starches to sugars offer a whole different taste treat. Kale can be used in salads, stir fries, stews and soups. Kale leaves can also be juiced to add a real nutrient pop to your vegetable smoothies. One really fun and innovative way of using kale is to make kale “chips.” There are numerous kale chip recipes out there and for beginners I suggest you use one that requires a lower temperature in order to reduce the risk of ending up with a “burnt” flavour. Done properly, kale chips are every bit as good as their reputation.
At the end of the day, the real reason so many people have learned to love their kale is the nutrition it offers. While many modern “foodies” are trying to suggest that the “kale craze is over”, or that kale really isn’t the “superfood” it’s been made out to be, the truth is that kale has been here for a couple thousand years already (so it’s hardly a craze) and it continues to score top points in all sorts of nutritional comparisons. One serving of kale has more calcium than a six ounce glass of milk. Kale is extremely high in vitamin A, Vitamin K (of special interest to anyone on blood thinners) , and vitamin C. Kale is also high in nearly every other vitamin. The fibre levels in kale are as good as you’ll find and many of the minerals are also right at the top of the charts. Iron, potassium, copper, manganese, magnesium and phosphorous are all well represented in kale. Apparently the average American (and likely Canadian as well) eats only two to three cups of kale per year. That’s a statistic in desperate need of change! You can start right in your own garden.