Kale is one of those plants. We know it’s really healthful, we know we should eat more of it, and we pick it up in the produce market standing a little taller as we wheel our cart toward the checkout, feeling morally superior for having selected a superfood instead of grabbing the Cheetos that were on sale two for one. There are kale chips, kale smoothies, kale salads, kale soups, kale pesto, kale in any recipe that calls for spinach, and even “The Stew” that held us all rapt during the freezing weather of early 2019. With so many variations on the kale theme, I figured that I would easily use the leaves produced by several plants in a single garden plot, so I purchased a package of seeds last year and set about growing it.
The cultivar I chose is Lark’s Tongue kale, also known as Lerchenzungen in Germany where it was bred. Seeds were in high demand at that time, and I was trying to consolidate my ordering to one or two companies, so there were only two cultivars available to me, and, of those, this one was supposed to have the nicest flavor. Into the cart it went, and once in the cold frame the seeds sprouted quickly with a very high percentage of them germinating. I had more seedlings than I could use, so I gave about three quarters of them to friends, set mine out in the ground, shoveled on some compost and leaf mulch, and let the plants grow.
I encountered a few pests including an early plague of whiteflies that left yellow spots on the tops and webby messes on the undersides of the leaves. I cut off the affected leaves and passed them on to the city composting facility where the piles would be hot enough to destroy any residues, and I sprayed the leaves with the watering hose to dislodge the invaders whenever I had a chance. With the onset of really hot weather, the infestation disappeared rather unceremoniously without any permanent damage to the plants.
About the time the whiteflies went away, small, white butterflies began flitting about, leaving their eggs on the undersides of the leaves. Tiny, green caterpillars emerged some days later, and the cabbage worms began cutting perfectly round holes into the leaves of the kale, but also, apparently, helped control other pests by consuming their eggs. Before I could find the time to look up how I might avoid these little herbivores, wasps appeared in the garden, moving quickly and purposefully through the plot. I watched them hovering to inspect each leaf on every kale plant, deliberately and methodically seeking out the caterpillars that had been just as carefully deposited by the butterflies.
Having been stung by wasps on a few occasions, I will admit to pitying the little green worms. The larger lesson, however, lies in the wisdom of doing nothing to disrupt the system and allowing enough time for Mother Nature to take care of your problem pests. For example, I found aphids on a few mint stems a week or so ago, but a day later there were ladybugs crawling through the herbs. My garden gets compost, mulch, and the occasional batch of manure from either a local horse stable or an angora rabbit breeder. That’s it. Insect pests will inevitably appear, and a couple of days later their predators will show up and remove the problem. If not, a little scrubbing with water and a few drops of dish soap usually do the trick, and keeping the area free of pesticides helps protect the local wildlife. Nesting birds are a boon for pest control, patrolling the garden every morning and evening, picking off anything they can feed to their babies. If I lose a plant or a few fruit in a season, it’s no big deal. I can buy those. I can’t buy a nest of catbirds or robins.
As it turns out, perhaps predictably, I only made a few kale dishes, despite the fact that the plants thrived, growing tall enough that I had to implement a support system. In defiance of my best efforts to stake them, they grew taller than me, first leaning precariously, and eventually falling over like mildly sulfurous, coastal palm trees. Several plants survived through the winter, and this spring it took quite some time for them to send up flowers to let me know that, indeed, they are biennials, and I had not lucked into magically perennial kale. New seedlings from the same packet are now becoming established in the plot next door to their predecessors, and I’m going to make a concerted effort to do better this year and send more kale into our systems than to the compost bin. I should probably begin to collect some recipes.