Kale is an undeniably wonderful plant for fall gardens. The leaves catch droplets of rain and the plants continue to look nice even when the mercury drops below freezing. It is easy to find "ornamental" and "flowering" kales, which are bred for the color of their leaves rather than for their taste, as this time of year. But it is worth the extra effort to seek out varieties that look pretty and taste good, too.
I grow a ridiculous amount of kale because we eat it almost every day. The leaves cook super quickly and are chock full of vitamins. I toss handfuls of chopped kale into soups and steam, saute, stir fry, and roast it. I've grown many different varieties, but these are three of my favorites:
'Lacinato'. This Italian heirloom is also known as "dinosaur kale" and for good reason. The dark green, deeply rumpled leaves grown nearly a foot long and the plant get almost four feet tall. Once you grow 'Lacinato', it is definitely easy to imagine a stegosaurus happily munching on the leaves. I love to harvest this variety from the bottom up, because it ends up looking almost like a palm tree. The leaves taste good cooked or raw. It is a seriously gorgeous plant and a staple in my garden.
'Redbor'. This deep purple variety has the most amazing curled leaves. I love to plant 'Redbor' because it adds great texture to the vegetable garden. It looks especially pretty interplanted with leeks, because their spiky, grey-ish green leaves make a nice contrast. This variety is full of anthocyanins--purple plant pigments that act as antioxidants in the body. I find that 'Redbor' tastes best cooked, because the curly texture is a bit rough raw.
'Rainbow Lacinato'. This amazing open-pollinated variety was bred by Wild Garden Seeds. It is a cross between 'Lacinato' and 'Redbor'. The leaves are long like 'Lacinato', but slightly less rumpled and they are more of a greenish grey with purple stems and veins. So pretty! And tasty too. It's a fairly new variety, so it is hard to find at nurseries, but easy to grow from seed.
You can order 'Rainbow Lacinato' seed from Wild Garden Seeds and get 'Lacinato' and 'Redbor' plants from Annie's Annuals (though they are not currently available). It is unfortunately a bit late to plant kale in most parts of the country, but it is luckily easy to find at the farmers market. Next year plant seeds or starts in mid to late summer for fall and winter crops.
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Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Vegetable Gardening will be published in January 2012.