by Julia Frisbie
posted July 6, 2021
If you left any kale plants in your garden over winter, and neglected to pull them out this spring, you probably noticed the wonderful tall spray of yellow flowers, followed by loads of tiny purple/green seed pods. In my garden, the birds have been eagerly checking these seeds for ripeness.
Birds and kale work together in wonderful ways to support each other’s next generations. Right as baby birds are leaving the nest, kale spreads her arms open wide and offers several weeks worth of high-protein food, packaged neatly so only birds can get it, and stored on perches high enough to offer protection from ground predators. The fledglings visit again and again as they learn their way around the neighborhood, and as they go, they disperse whatever seed they don’t metabolize in an ever-widening radius. They leave it in warm, moist bundles of fertilizer under every appealing perch, often along hedgerows and under trees. Kale seedlings spring up in apparent delight. Baby birds and baby kale both get off to a good start. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “all flourishing is mutual.”
Following kale’s lead, we know that late-June to mid-July is a good time to plant her seeds. I learned from Linda Gilkeson’s Backyard Bounty that the same holds true for many frost tolerant biennials in the brassica family: broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, raab, and cabbage. If you plant them in June or July, they become the backbone of your winter garden. It’s hard to think of winter just as our temperatures begin to climb… unless you notice the dance happening between birds and kale.
Once you watch the dance long enough, you learn the steps and get to join in. Last year I cut down a few of the seed stalks (leaving plenty behind for the birds) and let them dry on my shady front porch until they were light brown and rattling. Then I wrapped them up in a big cotton sheet and jumped on them for a while. After unwrapping them, I grabbed the sticks and the empty pods up by the handful for mulch, and was left with a slick pile of perfectly black, spherical seeds in the bottom of the sheet. I tipped them out into a pint jar.
All summer I scattered pinches of seed in city easements and along our favorite walking routes, but I still had too much left over. I thought to myself: what would the birds do? So I packed them up into little coin envelopes and mailed them all across the country as Christmas gifts to my far-flung loved ones. (If you got one of those, this is your reminder: scatter your kale seeds now!) I put the rest in Transition Fidalgo’s seed bank. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like some. You have nothing to lose; only leafy greens and songbirds to gain.