Local foods and small farms educator Bill Davison says “kale is at least 30-40 percent cooler than broccoli.” The reason is the ease in which it is grown and how ornamental it can be.
However, Swiss chard and beet greens are the real rock stars of the garden. These greens are an early season delectable treat for my family, just as easy to grow and taste better.
Kale is a cool-weather crop in the same family as broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi. It is harvested for its leaves and can be planted in early spring or late summer for abundant harvesting. It has large, textured leaves and grows three to four feet tall.
Kale can be grown from seed or transplants. Kale transplants can be planted in the garden three to four weeks before the last frost date in the spring. Seeds started indoors in early spring can be ready for planting in five weeks. It is best to harden the seedlings by gradually placing them outside in full sun. Transplants can be planted, leaving 18 to 24 inches between plants.
Kale will benefit from adding compost before planting and a layer of mulch to conserve moisture. Kale should be grown in full sun. The outer leaves are harvested while they are tender and young, leaving the plant looking like a palm tree.
Davison's favorite cultivar is ‘Lacinato Rainbow,’ and is popular for its vigorous, curly, dark leaf with pink veins and greater cold hardiness. Kale should be planted again in the late summer to early fall for a second crop. In fact, the taste of kale is better after a light frost.
Swiss chard is actually a beet selected for its bright and colorful leaves. The industry sells Swiss chard in packs as an ornamental cool weather annual. “Bright Lights” is the paradigm for multicolored Swiss chard. Swiss chard can be planted as soon as the soil is workable and above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Swiss chard is harvested similar to kale. If grown for baby leaves, start from seed and harvest entire plant when 3 inches tall. If a continued harvest is desired, start from a transplant and remove outer leaves as plant continues to grow.
Beet seeds can also be planted as soon as the soil is workable and above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. No more than a third of the beet greens should be harvested from the plant while it is producing the deep red orb. Seeds should be thinned to three or four, allowing you to eat the small seedlings. Succession planting every week or two allows harvest throughout the growing season. Beets can be planted up until the middle of July.