Does a kale plant really need 18” of space around it? Surely not. Lesson 1: it does.
This is our first year of growing vegetables seriously. Last year we dabbled in sugar snap peas, dwarf beans, salad leaves and tomatoes. This year since starting on our Wahls protocol in February the demand for leafy greens made us think about growing our own. The protocol asks for three tightly packed cups of leafy greens and three tightly packed cups of sulphur rich vegetables per person per day. That’s a whole lot of veggies to get through and as we also wanted to choose organic wherever possible our grocery bills started to rocket (or mushroom?).
The other consideration is freshness. What better than harvesting food that you have nurtured yourself and know how it’s been grown and eating it within hours. However, we do not have a huge garden and are reluctant to dig up the front lawn. Our back garden is small and shady so that left us with a small, triangular section at the side of the house which has always been a waste of space, also rather shady thanks to a large and rather rotten silver birch tree.
We came up with a plan (lots of engineering genes in our family) and presented it to our friendly gardeners. These wonderful guys have been coming every week to cut the grass but are capable of much more than that. Luckily they were able to start within days. Down came the silver birch, out went some tired shrubs and in came some very substantial raised beds and mobility scooter friendly paving for access.
While all this was going on we were purchasing packets of seeds and reading lots of articles on spacing of plants. Our space was limited so we needed to make the best use of it. Does a kale plant really need 18” of space around it? Surely not. Lesson 1. It does. Anyway, lots of seeds were planted in little pots in the shed. We don’t have a greenhouse, just a shed with windows along the front. The first kale seeds were planted on the 19th March. We chose Starbor F1 (a lovely bright green), Dwarf Green Curled (don’t be fooled by that word Dwarf) and Nero di Toscana, the majestic cavalo nero.
They started germinating 10 days later. This is where the magic starts. Once the journey for that little seed starts there is no going back. Has it got it right? I know the reason for plants making so many seeds is because of the high failure rate but when it works it is magic. Then the magic continues. How does it know which way is up. Another thing to google. Anyway, seeds were doing well but wanting more light. They were all growing towards the window. Turning them round every now and then helped a bit but they were getting leggy so they needed to go outside.
We don’t have space for nursery beds and cold frames for “hardening off” so it was straight into the new raised beds. This happened on the 20th April. They looked so small and lost in this big space. We put all the seedlings in, much too close together, but they might not all survive and we could use the thinnings later for salad. When it comes to it that is not as straightforward as it sounds as all the best plants may be grouped together and can they be moved?
Well we did our best and to our amazement our first harvest for all the kales was on the 6th June. They went from strength to strength and throughout June and July we chomped our way through heaps of veggies. We were in heaven. All we did was water them and do a bit of weeding. I had planned to feed them every two weeks with some seaweed fertiliser but they looked so well I didn’t bother. Lesson 2 – don’t wait until your veggies look hungry before you feed them.
In August the weather changed from warm and sunny to cold and grey. We kept harvesting but gradually realised the growth had slowed considerably. I realised that although these plants were supposed to keep growing all winter the growth rate may not be sufficient for our rather greedy needs. More cavalo nero seeds were planted but of course these did not mature as quickly as the spring set. Lesson 3 – plan ahead. Easy to say when you know what you’re doing but we didn’t! These little plants are doing quite well now but nowhere near big enough to start harvesting.
Another problem we have recently encountered with the kale, especially the cavalo nero, is mealy cabbage aphid. Being organic we don’t want to spray except with Dr. Bronner’s pure castile soap and neem oil. However, if plants are well fed they can withstand these sort of attacks. Back to lesson 2. I have read on many websites that pigeons can be a problem. This has just started to happen now we’ve taken the nets off for winter, as they can perch on the net hoops, so we’ll need to monitor that. We had hoops fitted and purchased ready made nets to fit to keep the cabbage white butterflies at bay.
We are truly grateful that we have had an amazing first year with the veggies, far better than we deserved, and look forward to learning more during the winter months. We know that kale is highly nutritious and extremely versatile and is helping us on our journey to better health. Apart from all that kale is a truly beautiful plant. It gives us joy.
Got any tips or questions of your own about growing organic vegetables? Leave us a comment below, we’d love to hear from you.