How to Harvest Kale Without Killing the Plant: Photo Guide

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A closeup of Lacinato kale to demonstrate how to harvest kale without killing the plant.

Kale always has a spot in my garden, whether it’s outdoors or even growing indoors in my basement! I love the fresh taste, and I’ve harvested quite a bit of kale in my day. But is there a way to harvest kale incorrectly- could you hurt or even kill your plant? Well, yes. Fortunately, learning how to harvest kale without killing the plant is super easy!

To harvest kale so it keeps growing, wait until the plant is at least 8 inches tall with at least 10 true leaves. Harvest only the outer leaves near the base of the plant, leaving the new leaves at the growth tip untouched. Using your hands or a clean pair of pruners, remove the leaf as close to the main stem as possible. Harvest no more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the leaves at a time, and allow a few days for the plant to recover before harvesting again.

In this post, I’ll show you how I safely harvest leaves from my kale plants and share with you my growing tips so you’ll have plenty of nutritious leaves to harvest. Let’s get started!

How a Kale Plant Grows

Kale develops a central stem that continuously grows taller, with leaves branching out along the way. The oldest leaves are near the base of the plant, and the new growth emerges from the tip of the main stem. Like most greens (spinach, Swiss chard, etc), kale is a cut-and-come-again crop, meaning that it will continue to produce new leaves even after you harvest the older ones.

Here’s one of my kale plants after being harvested several times. You can see how the growth tip continues to produce new leaves from the central stem:

A kale plant that continues to produce new leaves after being harvested several times.

As the plant matures, it will eventually shoot up a stalk that produces flowers and seed. This is called bolting, and it’s a natural part of the plant’s reproductive cycle. But once a kale plant bolts, the leaves become tough and bitter- not a good addition to your salad.

Proper harvesting respects the plant’s needs while keeping it in leaf-producing mode for as long as possible.

How to Harvest Kale Without Killing the Plant

Harvesting kale properly is easy to do as long as you know a couple of simple points.

You don’t even need any tools- I always harvest my kale with my bare hands. But if you’d prefer to use pruners or sharp scissors, that works great too. Just make sure to clean the blades first to avoid transferring any contaminants.

So now let’s get to the how-to details:

Wait Until the Plant is Mature Enough to Harvest

Harvesting your kale too early is a sure-fire way to kill it- so knowing when to harvest kale is point #1.

I wait until my kale plants are at least 8 to 10 inches tall and have at least 10 healthy leaves before I’ll take any harvest. Your plant depends on its leaves to produce food through photosynthesis, so you don’t want to starve your plant by taking leaves it still needs.

Here are two Lacinato kale plants I’m growing indoors, more than ready for harvest:

Two Lacinato kale plant ready to be harvested.

Harvest Outer Leaves

The outer leaves at the base of the plant are the ones you want to harvest. These are the oldest and most mature leaves, and harvesting them allows the plant to redirect energy to producing new leaves. They’ll also fill up your salad bowl faster!

Here are the ones you want:

Older, harvestable leaves at the base of a kale plant.

Remove the leaves as close to the main stem as possible; you don’t want to leave excess leaf material behind- that will just shrivel up and potentially rot.

If you choose to harvest by hand like I do, gently push the leaf downward until it pulls away from the main stem. I usually find that mature leaves snap off the main stem pretty easily.

A gardener snaps a kale leaf free from the main stem to harvest.

A gardener pulls a kale leaf free from the plant.
A gardener holds a kale leaf freshly harvested from a plant.

If you’re using scissors or pruners, snip the leaf free as close as you can to the main stem- but be careful not to knick the stem accidentally.

Repeat the process for each leaf until you have your desired amount.

Is It Safe to Cut Off the Top of a Kale Plant?

Cutting the top off a kale plant immediately stops new growth from forming on the central stem tip. If your kale is early in the season and you want it to keep going, do not cut the top off.

Here’s a look at the growth tip on my plant:

The growth tip, with new leaves, at the top of the main stem on a kale plant.

However, if your plant is getting too tall, it looks like it’s about to bolt or you’re nearing the end of the growing season, cutting the top off can be a good idea. This stops the plant from producing a flower stalk, known as bolting or going to seed. Bolting turns the plant leaves bitter and can spell the end of fresh kale season.

Plus, cutting off the plant top stimulates your kale to produce new leaves lower on the main stem. So if you do it at the right time, topping the plant can help extend the harvest for a little longer.

Don’t Harvest Too Much at Once

If you want a large amount of kale right now, you could harvest the entire plant in one go. But if you want your plant to keep living and producing, you need to harvest more thoughtfully.

Your kale needs 2/3 of its leaves to absorb energy from the sun, so it’s generally recommended not to harvest more than 1/3 of the kale plant at a time. I like to play it extra safe, so I only take up to 1/4 of the kale plant at a time. Harvesting a handful should be enough kale for salads.

If you want to eat lots of fresh kale for weeks or months, I recommend planting at least 8 kale plants. One year, I planted about 20 plants, and I had more kale than I knew what to do with for our family of four.

Tips for a Healthy Kale Crop

Now that you know how to harvest your kale correctly, I wanted to talk about some care tips to make sure your proper harvesting is happening often!

Here’s what I’ve learned about growing kale through trial and error.

Water Often

Watering is such a simple thing, but it truly makes a massive difference. I’ve found that when my kale is starting to slow down growth or look a bit off, it’s almost always because I neglected to water it properly.

Aim to give your kale 1 inch of water per week. This moderate moisture level will provide you with the best quality kale leaves. This video from MIGardener provides a great reference for what 1 inch of water actually means:

Time Your Planting Right

Kale loves cool weather. In mild or moderate climates, it does best as an early spring or fall crop. In hot climates, kale is an excellent winter crop.

If you want to grow kale through the summer, choose heat-resistant kale varieties that can grow well during the season. Blue Ridge, Lacinato or Red Ursa kale leaves are good options.

Provide Shade and Mulch

In the Midwest where I live, I grow my greens in a raised bed that gets afternoon shade thanks to a large tree. My kale thrives all summer long. If you don’t have natural shade, set up a structure with shade cloth or even an old sheet. Keep an eye on the lighting throughout the day, and set up your shade structure to block the harsh afternoon rays.

Mulch acts as a protective blanket that helps keep the soil moist and roots cool to promote growth. Soak the soil thoroughly first, then apply 2-3 inches of organic mulch, like these:

  • Straw
  • Seed-free hay
  • Shredded fallen leaves
  • Compost
  • Grass clippings from untreated lawns

Harvest Often

Earlier, I said kale plants need a few days to recover after harvesting. That’s true, but waiting too long to harvest just leads to dried-up leaves and slowed growth. So you’ve got to strike a good balance.

Harvesting kale leaves regularly stimulates the plant to keep producing new growth. In my experience, I can safely harvest a couple of leaves from a single plant every 4-5 days, typically when they’re about as big as my palm.

Fertilize Regularly

Your kale needs lots of nutrients to produce abundant, nutritious leaves for you to harvest. Compost is the best fertilizer there is, but an organic commercial formula is a good second choice.

Apply your fertilizer every 3-4 weeks during the growing season, and always make sure to water it in well.

Infographic outlining how to harvest kale without killing the plant.

Key Points:

  • Your kale plants are ready for harvest once they are at least 8 inches tall and have at least 10 healthy leaves.
  • Harvest the outer leaves, near the plant base. These are the oldest and largest leaves.
  • Remove the entire leaf from the main stem. If harvesting by hand, use your fingers to apply gentle downward pressure to snap the free. If using scissors/pruners, cut the leaf off at the main stem.
  • Don’t cut the growing point off the kale plant if you want it to keep growing. You can cut the top off as the plant gets older and closer to producing seed.
  • Harvest only 1/4 to 1/3 of the plant at once.

Frequently Asked Questions about Harvesting Kale

Kale typically prefers cool temperatures. In hot weather, the plant bolts, or starts producing seed, as a stress response. Bolting results in tough, bitter leaves as the plant diverts sugar into the seeds.

Yes. The flower heads on your kale plants are just as delectable as the leaves. The cooking process for kale florets is the same as for broccoli florets; you can eat them raw or cooked.

Kale is a biennial plant, meaning that they have a 2-year lifespan. In the first year, it will produce plenty of leaves. Kale seeds will grow in the following year. Since kale is mostly grown for its leaves, most gardeners treat it as an annual that needs to be replanted every year.

As long as your kale is healthy, there’s no limit to how many times you can harvest it.

Final Thoughts

Kale is a nutrient powerhouse that’s a delicious addition to salads or cooked dishes, so you want to harvest as much fresh garden kale as possible. I hope my experience and tips for harvesting kale so it keeps growing for the long haul have been helpful to you. Plus, I’ve always found kale to be a pretty forgiving plant, so don’t be afraid of making mistakes!

I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any other questions about harvesting kale properly, or maybe you have some tips and tricks you’ve picked up along the way? The best way to learn is from other gardeners, so please feel free to share in the comments!

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