When and How to Harvest Kale from Your Garden

Use these tips for harvesting kale at its best.

yokohama white kale plant
Photo: Marty Baldwin

Kale is an easy vegetable to grow in your garden, where you can always have it in close reach for adding to hearty salads, refreshing smoothies, and maybe even turning into a healthy snack as kale chips. This leafy green grows best in the cooler seasons of early spring and fall, just like other members of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) such as cabbage, Brussel sprouts, and collards. Once your plants have started flourishing, here's how to harvest kale to enjoy in all your favorite recipes.

Methods for Harvesting Kale

There are two different ways to pick kale. One is to snap off individual leaves from the stem as needed.  To do so, grip a leaf at its base where it meets the main stem and gently twist until the leaf breaks off. Or use pruning shears to snip off the leaf close to the stem. When you harvest kale this way, it allows the rest of the plant to continue growing and making more leaves for you.

The other method is to pull the whole plant up. This is best to do when you need a lot of kale for a recipe. After uprooting the plant, use a kitchen knife to cut the roots off the stem. Then remove all the leaves from the stem before washing and storing them.

When to Harvest Kale

The best time to harvest kale is before the plant produces flowers, which makes the leaves taste bitter. Start picking kale after the plant has reached its mature height. Exactly what that height is depends on the variety of kale that you're growing. This information should be listed either on the seed package or the plant tag that came with the starter plant. Some varieties can reach maturity within seven weeks after sowing seeds, but can stay in the ground for a long period of time. Kale is one vegetable that can handle a light freeze and often tastes sweeter after going through one.

How to Store Fresh Kale

To store kale leaves you don't want to use right away, wrap them in paper towels and put them in a zip top bag. Wait to wash the leaves until you want to use them. This will help minimize moisture in the bag that can cause mold or speed decay. Use your fresh kale leaves within a week of harvesting or they'll start to go bad.

How to Harvest Kale Seeds

Kale is a biennial that needs a cold or dormancy period before producing seed. Biennial means “two life cycles” and in the second year of that life cycle, kale will make seeds. In the second year of growing kale, the plant will bolt or flower when the weather turns warm. At this point, the plant will put its energy into making flowers and seeds instead of leaves. And once a vegetable goes to seed, the flavor of the plant usually declines. 

If you're interested in harvesting kale seeds, then you'll need to plant your kale a little differently. The flowers of kale are not self-fertile. This means that more than one plant is needed to produce seeds. Planting 10 plants close together will ensure a good level of pollination. You can still harvest leaves from your kale plants, but once they start to bolt, leave them to flower and set seeds instead of uprooting them as you might otherwise do.  

After pollination, tiny seed pods will start to form. Let the pods naturally dry on the plant until they're a light brown color. The longer you wait for the pods to naturally dry on the plant, the more likely you will have viable seeds for next season. Pick the dry seed pods from the plant and remove the seeds by rubbing the pods with your hands over a large bowl so that the seeds fall into it. Pick out any debris from the pods that ends up in the bowl.

Let the seeds air dry on a paper towel or dish for one week. Allowing all moisture to dry from the seed is extremely important for preventing mold and rot later. The seeds can then be placed in a storage container and labeled. An empty prescription pill bottle makes a great seed container. Store your seeds in a dry, dark place. If dried and stored correctly, kale seeds can last for four years. 

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