Kale is a popular garden plant that is easy to grow, vigorous, and yields a generous crop of tender leaves for the table. However flip through any seed catalog and you’ll quickly see that there are many types of kale you can grow with a range of leaf colors, textures, and shapes. While they have some similarities various types of kale also have a lot of differences. Certain ones are more cold hardy which is ideal if you want to harvest kale into winter, and others have colorful, showy foliage which is a great way to jazz up a front yard vegetable garden. Keep reading to learn more about the different varieties of kale and my 14 favourites ones to grow.
What is kale?
Kale is a cold season green that gardeners grow for its large, nutritious leaves. We enjoy kale raw in salads and smoothies, roasted for kale chips, and cooked into soup and stir-fry recipes. Kale is also a very healthy green and packed with vitamins and minerals like vitamin c, vitamin k, and calcium. Plus, there are many types of kale you can plant offering a wide selection of leaf shapes, textures, and colors.
Kale leaves become sweeter in cold weather which is why it’s often grown as an autumn and winter crop. In my zone 5 garden I harvest kale year-round protecting the plants with mini hoop tunnels or cold frames over the winter months. Grocery store kale can’t beat the delicious taste and texture of garden-grown leaves.
Types of kale
Kale falls into one of two groups: Brassica oleracea or Brassica napus. Brassica oleracea (Acephala group), which is also called wild cabbage, is the original species of popular cabbage family vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi. Over time, various cultivars arose as growers selected for different characteristics. For example, broccoli and cauliflower developed sizeable flower heads and kale plants were bred to produce large leaves. There are many outstanding Brassica oleracea kales including Blue Curled Scotch, Lacinato, and colorful ornamental kale varieties grown for autumn decor.
The other group of kale is Brassica napus (Pabularia group), also called Siberian kale. These vigorous kales are similar to Brassica oleracea varieties but are more winter hardy and have better insect resistance. The leaves of Siberian type kales are also more tender and mild flavored than those of Brassica oleracea. Both types make excellent garden plants and within each group there are many varieties available from seed catalogs. Let’s look closer at some of these different types of kale to help you decide the best ones to grow.
Types of kale in the Brassica oleracea group
Many popular garden kales are in the Brassica oleracea cultivar group. Most are compact plants, growing 18 to 24 inches tall and wide, and forming a basal rosette of leaves. If you look at the stem, the petioles of the leaves attach around the stem in a circle. The leaves themselves are thick and fleshy and can be narrow, like Lacinato kale, or paddle-shaped, as with many of the ornamental kales. Depending on the variety, the leaf margin may be smooth, wavy, or deeply serrated. This is a colorful group of kales with the leaves and leaf veins in vibrant shades of white, red, or deep purple.
Dwarf blue curled scotch kale
This dwarf kale is also called Vates and forms tidy mounds of deeply curled blue-green leaves. The plants grow about 12 to 16 inches tall and 24 inches wide. Because it’s so compact, it’s a kale that I like to plant in cold frames or low mini hoop tunnels. Harvest baby greens after 4 to 5 weeks. Mature plants need about 60 days to go from seed to harvest.
If I had to pick just one kale to grow, it would be Lacinato. This spectacular Italian type has many names including dinosaur kale, Tuscan kale, Toscano, and Cavolo Nero. The plants have narrow, puckered blue-green leaves that are among the most tender of all of the types of kale. It’s excellent in salads as well as in soups, casseroles, pastas, and stews. It’s not as winter hardy as some other types of kale, but with protection you can extend the homegrown harvest well into winter. Black Magic is an improved variety that is more heat-tolerant.
Rainbow Lacinato kale
This stunning variety was bred by Frank Morton who crossed Lacinato and Redbor kales and the result is a plant that is extremely ornamental and also offers a generous harvest of very tender, mild-flavored leaves. The blue-green leaves are stained with red and purple hues and the edges are lightly ruffled to fully curled. This variety is more cold hardy than Lacinato and also slower to bolt. If growing Rainbow Lacinato in autumn, note that the foliage color of most plants deepens to a rich purple.
The first time I saw a mature Redbor kale plant I thought it was an ornamental variety. Happily, the showy plants are also incredibly delicious. Expect a good harvest of deep purple-burgundy, tightly curly leaves held on two foot tall plants. I like to pick baby leaves to add bold color to salads, but no need to rush the harvest as the mature leaves are also very tender. Redbor is very cold hardy and is easily picked into winter in most regions. I cover the plants with a mini hoop tunnel in late autumn to make harvesting quick and easy.
There are many reasons why Winterbor is the standard green curly kale grown in home and market gardens. It’s reliable, productive, cold hardy, and the leaves have a mild pleasing taste. I like to pair Winterbor and Redbor in the garden as the color contrast is striking. Plus, they have similar growth habits. Both grow about two feet tall and yield over a long period of time. Another feature of Winterbor is that the very curly leaves make it difficult for imported cabbage worm butterflies to lay their eggs.
Prizm is an award-winning hybrid with attractive curly kale leaves held on short, stocky plants. I’ve been growing this robust kale for over five years and appreciate the compact growth that makes it ideal for pots or cold frames as well as its quick re-growth after harvesting. The dark green foliage of Prizm grows about 15 inches tall and wide and is ready to start harvesting about 6 weeks from sowing.
Portuguese kale, also known as Tronchuda, is the star ingredient in Portuguese kale soup. The plants look a lot like collard greens and form large loose heads that grow 18 inches tall and wide. The leaves themselves are smooth and paddle-shaped with bright white petioles and mid-ribs. The crunchy texture makes this a great varieties for juicing or smoothies.
Ornamental kales, as well as ornamental cabbages, are typically planted in flower beds and containers in late summer and early autumn to provide months of seasonal color. These low-growing plants mature at about 15 inches tall and wide and form rosettes of densely packed leaves. Depending on the variety, the leaves may be smooth, frilly, or deeply cut in shades of purple, white, pink, and red. Ornamental kale is technically edible, but the leaves are bred for form, texture, and color, not flavor. Therefore you’ll find them far more tough and bitter than kales intended for the kitchen.
Walking stick kale
This is one of the more unique types of kale, but one that is very fun to grow! Walking stick kale is an heirloom variety sometimes called Jersey Cabbage and grows up to 10 feet tall. Gardeners like to use the dense and fibrous stems of the mature plants for walking sticks. Walking stick kale is best planted in early spring so it can get a head start on the growing season although many gardeners leave it in the garden for 12 to 18 months so the plants can size up.
When you’re ready to harvest the ‘walking stick’ stalk, cut the plant and hang it in a warm, well-ventilated spot so it can dry out. It can take several months or more for the stem to completely dry. Once it has, add a coat of varnish and enjoy your homegrown walking stick. As for eating this type of kale, note that the leaves are edible, but I’d suggest harvesting the youngest leaves as these are the most tender.
Types of kale in the Brassica napus group
Brassica napus, Siberian kale, is the second type of kale and these cultivars are noted for their extreme winter hardiness and pest-resistance. It’s the curly or frilly leaf texture that makes it harder for insects to lay their eggs. Plus, most types of Brassica napus kales produce mild-flavored leaves so even the most reluctant kale eater will enjoy the tender foliage of these kales.
Red Russian kale
Also called Ragged Jack, Red Russian is a very widely grown kale. The plants boast smooth green leaves highlighted by bright purple veins. I love growing Red Russian for baby greens as the small leaves are ready to pick just a month from seeding. But the mature serrated leaves also make great kale chips or use the sliced leaves in dishes like soups and stews. Expect an almost sweet flavor, especially in late autumn and winter, and plants that grow up to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide.
As its name implies, this is a cold hardy kale, and one of my favorite types of kale to grow in winter. The ruffled blue-green leaves grow on 24 to 36 inch tall plants that mature 60 days from planting. I sow seeds for Siberian kale in mid-summer as this ensures the plants are full-sized by the time the temperature drops in early October.
White Russian kale
This fast-growing kale is similar in growth habit, appearance, and flavor to Red Russian, with the main difference that White Russian leaves have white ribs and petioles. While this kale doesn’t offer bold coloration, it is still incredibly attractive with its vase-shape and finely serrated leaf edges.
Red Ursa kale
Red Ursa, also bred by Frank Morton, combines Red Russian and Siberian kale. It’s an award-winning variety with thick blue-green leaves and burgundy-purple veins. Pick the curly edged leaves as baby greens, full-sized leaves, or at any stage in-between. Like Siberian kales, Red Ursa is very cold hardy.
Bear Necessities kale (One of the most ornamental types of kale!)
I fell in love with this incredibly unique kale a couple of years ago and have been growing it ever since. Why? The finely serrated leaves are super feathery which gives great loft in baby salad mixes. But this fine texture also means that Bear Necessities is resistant to many types of insects. The leaves also have a color range that includes green, blue-green, green-purple, and purple. Like other types of Siberian kales it’s very cold tolerant and we enjoy it well into the winter months.
Other great kales you may wish to try include Scarlet kale, Chinese kale (also called Gai lan or Chinese broccoli), Dazzling Blue, Casper, and Kosmic which is reliably perennial and returns year after year.
Growing tips for all types of kale
Now that we know more about the many types of kale, I wanted to share some tips that help me grow a bumper crop of these leafy greens each year.
- Start seeds indoors – Kale seeds can be direct sown or started inside under grow lights. If I’m planting a crop of baby kale I direct sow the seeds spacing them about 1 inch apart. However, for full-sized plants I like to sow kale seeds inside 4 to 5 weeks before I want to move them to the garden. This allows me to transplant vigorous plants without the worry of pests like slugs eating the tiny seedlings.
- Give kale ideal growing conditions – Kale thrives when planted in full sun in compost-enriched soil. It also needs a steady source of nitrogen so I add a slow-release organic vegetable fertilizer when I transplant the seedlings.
- Practice proper spacing – For full-sized plants, I space kale seedlings 12 inches apart in rows or a grid formation.
- Harvest often – For the best tasting kale, pick often, removing the oldest leaves. These are the outermost leaves and harvesting this way also encourages plenty of tender new foliage to sprout. Remember that kale tastes better after a frost so don’t be in a hurry to harvest kale if the weather is still warm.
If you liked learning about the different types of kale, you may enjoy these articles:
- How to grow lacinato kale
- A complete kale growing guide
- Learn about growing kale in winter
- Growing kale indoors
- How to freeze kale
Do you have any favorite types of kale to grow?