I’d never thought of kale as a spring treat. Kale is the Scottish chieftain lifting his sword and shield to defy winter’s blast, holding fast to his brave greenery. But attempts to grow kale in the winter greenhouse had failed. It didn’t start to regrow, as spinach would, in the lengthening days of February. It died.
I was using the wrong kales — not wrong for fall, when the cold turns the leaves deliciously sweet, but wrong for overwintering. As with most gardening adventures, you often have to try a number of varieties to find ones that do just what you want them to do. Most kales that people plant, including the increasingly popular Tuscan varieties such as Lacinato, are of the species Brassica oleracea. But my husband and I decided to fool around with some of the Russian/Siberian kales. These are of the species Brassica napus, which, if the truth be told, makes them closer to turnips and rutabagas, though with kale-like leaves.
So on Sept. 1, we transplanted two varieties into a small, unheated greenhouse. One was called True Siberian and the other Russian Hunger Gap. The first had a semi-curly leaf with white veins; the second was blue-green with reddish ribs, a bit like the colorful and popular Red Russian. Hunger Gap sounded promising, because traditionally the hunger gap, or hungry gap, is the period at winter’s end when root crops in the cellar are shriveling long before anything green is happening in the garden. That variety, we were told, would not only winter over, it would also hold a long time before going to seed in spring, forming a nutritional bridge across the dreaded gap.
Both plants did great in fall, then succumbed to low temperatures, like any kale. But in February they were born anew, sending forth fresh, tender foliage. Was that because they were bred to withstand a Siberian winter? Maybe in part, but we think it had more to do with the species’ turnip-like habit of growth, in which stems emerge in a cluster just above the ground, not one tall stem thrusting recklessly into cold air. Even among the napa types, these proved especially ground-hugging, putting stealth above bravado.
Of course, flavor is what counts, so we tried them both raw and gently cooked. We thought True Siberian was sweet and delicious until we tried Russian Hunger Gap, and it was like putting sugar in tea. We couldn’t get enough of it.
True Siberian is available from Seeds of Change, (www.seedsofchange.com), but disappointingly, Russian Hunger Gap seed is currently out of stock at one of its few sources, Adaptive Seeds in Sweet Home, Ore. (www.adaptiveseeds.com; e-mail email@example.com for information). Enviably, we can save seeds of it after it bolts into bloom. Which it will get around to doing, many fine meals later.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”
Be careful with spring mulching. Mulch volcanoes harm trees by damaging bark and promoting surface rooting. Mulch should be kept away from the base of tree trunks and maintained at no more than two inches thick wherever it is applied.
Higgins’s gardening column will return next week.