Photo: Steve Bender

I wrote the first story about growing kale that ever appeared in Southern Living and, as a result, was nearly hauled off to the pokey by an infuriated public. And all because I offered them insight and wisdom about this neglected, nutritious veggie.

I had recently moved from Maryland to Alabama and was dismayed that no grocery stores stocked this delicious winter green. No garden centers sold it. Whenever I'd ask, they'd reply, "Never heard of it. We have collards." So I ordered seed, planted kale in my garden, and presented kale to the South as if I was Moses descending the mountaintop tablets-in-hand.

The reaction was less than positive. One letter read (people actually wrote letters then), "Mr. Bender, we do not need you to save us from our ignorance. Why don't you take your kale and go back to Yankeeland?"

All right, I admit I could have been less uppity in my tone. The Grumpy Gardener was not yet a revered and beloved source of gardening wisdom. The funny thing is today Southerners are gaga over kale. You can buy it at Kroger's, Publix, Piggly-Wiggly, Whole Foods, and even Wal-Mart. When you can buy it at Wal-Mart, you know it's mainstream.

Kale is touted as a health food, supplying huge amounts of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K (vital to being a successful kicker in the NFL), as well as lots of minerals and fiber. Love that fiber.

But why buy kale if you can grow your own? It's easy. This cool-weather green grows all fall and winter and tastes even sweeter after a frost. Here's all you have to do.

 

Winterbor kale. Photo: Steve Bender

1. Now's the time to plant, so start with transplants from the garden center. (You can sow seeds, but then you have to contend with snails eating the seedlings. Plus, your first harvest will be a month later.) As you can see, I'm starting with 'Winterbor' kale (thank you, Bonnie Plants!) that features blue-green frilly leaves. Other popular kales include 'Redbor' (reddish-purple frilly leaves with pink veins), 'Red Russian' (flat, gray-green leaves with purple veins -- great for use as baby kale in salads), and 'Lacinato' aka "dinosaur kale" (thick, gray-blue, puckered leaves prized by chefs).

2. Set transplants into fertile, well-drained soil containing lots of organic matter. Kale prefers sun, but tolerates light shade. Give each plant a drink of liquid fertilizer (Bonnie Plant Food) and natural soil conditioner (I recommend Annie Haven's Moo-Poo Tea) after you plant. Then sprinkle a handful of slow-release fertilizer (cottonseed meal or Espoma Garden-tone 3-4-4) around each plant. Water your kale plants every rainless day for two weeks to get them established.

3. Insect pests are fewer in fall, but white cabbage moths occasionally visit kale, leaving behind caterpillars to eat your precious leaves. You can protect your kale by draping it with floating row covers or spraying according to label directions with two natural insecticides -- Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) or spinosad. You can get these at garden centers.

4. Harvest kale when plants are large enough by cutting off the outer leaves and letting the inner ones grow. That way, you'll be harvesting for months.

So should I still move back to "Yankeeland"? And should I take kale with me?

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