Kale and Swiss Chards: Cold-hardy Vegetables Ideal for Northern Gardens

A study in the best-tasting cold-hardy vegetables available receives some unwitting assistance from the local doe

Credit: Courtesy All American Selections

A study in the best-tasting cold-hardy vegetables available receives some unwitting assistance from the local doe

Last winter, making choices for my contribution to the Northern Master Gardener vegetable trials, I decided to be sensible for a change. Kale and Swiss chard are not exotic, but they can be pretty, and any vegetable that actually tastes better after a touch of frost has to be a winner in northern gardens. They both do well in moist cool soils that are a bit acidic, and neither are heavy feeders so there wouldn’t be a need for fertilizer after the initial spring dressing of a balanced multi-purpose blend.

The kales tested included ‘Black Tuscan’ (aka ‘Black Lacinato’), ‘Blue Scotch Curled’, ‘Dinosaur’, ‘Rainbow Tuscan’, ‘Winterbor’ and an oddball that may or may not really be a kale, but goes under the local name of “Pete’s English Cutting Green.” This came to Prince George from our friend Pete in the Robson Valley, who got it from the family of someone who had brought it from England half a century ago, hence the name. A story like that made it worth including, especially as it is also said to be a reliably hardy biennial, producing early edible leaves before setting seed in its second year.

The Swiss chards also offered many choices, and I indulged in ‘Fordhook Giant’, ‘Bright Lights’, ‘Silverado’ and ‘Rhubarb’, hoping for a colourful and tasty harvest.

I planted far too many seeds of each, of course, and we would have been swamped from early summer on had not the friendly neighbourhood deer offered a helping hoof. Deer, it turns out, are very fond of fresh summer greens; luckily, from the scientific experiment point of view, they are also fussy about their varieties.

Their number-one choice in kales, presumably indicating the sweetest and/or most tender, was clearly ‘Winterbor’, followed by ‘Blue Scotch Curled’. They would nibble a bit at the others, but didn’t turn to them for the main meal until their favourites were cropped to the ground. The ‘Rainbow Tuscan’, pretty but not outstanding with only muted colours in the stems, went next, followed by ‘Black Tuscan’ and then ‘Dinosaur’. These two looked identical to me, and I had been muttering about seed companies that stuck fancy new names on existing varieties for the sake of marketing, but the deer clearly found ‘Black Tuscan’ superior. They munched its long strappy leaves nearly to the ground before turning to ‘Dinosaur.’ The heritage “Pete’s English Cutting Greens,” on the other hand, they were inclined to ignore – which may have been a factor in its longevity in deer country. The young leaves were every bit as tasty as any other to the human palate, especially sautéed with butter and garlic, and they produced large turnip-like roots late in the summer that were nicely crunchy sliced and diced into stir-fries. 

The Swiss chard varieties, on the other hand, were all deer favourites whatever the colour or name. The deer happily munched them all to the ground, starting with the ones farthest from the furious and fenced-in watchdogs. (These are the same dogs that ate all my broccoli last year, which is why they are now fenced off from the veggie beds.) The plants were, for a brief period of time, outstanding in the garden, in a blaze of red, orange, yellow and white stems with dark green or greenish-red foliage. They were a pretty sight indeed, but the sheer volume of greenery was overwhelming, and I wasn’t sorry when the doe and her two fawns took care of that problem for me. Memo: next year, plant only what I can eat or give away, not the entire contents of the seed packages.

Human taste tests agreed with the wildlife, so this year I am growing ‘Winterbor’ kale, as well as the related varieties ‘Redbor’ and ‘Westlande’. “Pete’s English Cutting Greens” will also be included, both for utility and sentimental value.

There didn’t seem to be any significant difference in yield or flavour between the chards, so colour was the deciding factor. ‘Bright Lights’ gives a beautiful range of colours, but I’ll harvest ‘Silverado’ for use in dishes where the pure-white stems and dark- green leaves are more appropriate for look.

This year’s experiment is with Mesclun mixes. And the deer fencing will be going up as you read this!

Barbara Rayment gardens in Prince George, where she grows and experiments with a wide variety of hardy plants, when not teaching the Master Gardener course or writing. The second edition of her book, From the Ground Up: A Horticultural Guide for Northern Gardeners, is now available.