How to Grow Sweet and Tender Red Russian Kale

Brassica napus subsp. pabularia ‘Red Russian’

If you’re looking for a sweet and tender variety of kale for your garden, look no further than ‘Red Russian.’

This heirloom variety has large leaves that are softer than other varieties, making it a welcome change from fall greens that require lots of cooking.

A vertical close up picture of bunches of harvested 'Red Russian' kale. The purple stems and veins contrast with the light green leaves. To the center and bottom of the frame is green and white text.

This variety also has a unique appearance with its frilly green leaves and purple-red stems. In fact, some people even cultivate it just for ornamental purposes, adding rich color to their fall gardens.

This cultivar is grown in a similar way to other varieties of kale, but I’ll provide the details for growing ‘Red Russian’ below.

What Is ‘Red Russian’ Kale?

This particular cultivar of Brassica oleracea is also known as ragged jack and sweet red. Flatter than other cultivars and with jagged edges, its leaves are also the most tender and mild of all varieties.

A close up of Brassica oleracea plants growing in the garden. With light purple stems and green leaves contrasting with the dark earthy soil, in light sunshine.

Due to its tenderness, ‘Red Russian’ is often grown for baby greens. These small leaves make great additions to salads.

The bright purple stems differentiate this variety from ‘White Russian’. This purple color indicates the presence of compounds called anthocyanins.

According to a 2017 study in the Food and Nutrition Research Journal, anthocyanins provide a number of health benefits including antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.

When and How to Plant

This cultivar has similar requirements to other types of kale. It should be planted in full sun and provided with about half an inch of water a week.

However, as with all crops, water more in hotter weather and less in cooler weather.

‘Red Russian’ is cold hardy, just like other varieties. It can tolerate some heat, but it does best in colder conditions.

A close up of a red seedling tray containing nine plants of the 'Red Russian' variety. Some of the leaves are a deep purple, others mid to dark green. The background is a light stone surface with a little moss, in soft focus.

Therefore, it is best grown in the spring and again in the fall.

If you are starting seeds indoors to transplant, choose a sowing date based on your growing zone:

  • For growing zones 2 to 5, sow seeds in April and again in late July.
  • If your zone is 6 to 8, sow seeds in March and again in early-mid August.
  • If you are in zone 9 or above, sow seeds in February and again in September.

These transplants will be ready to plant out into your garden after three to four weeks. At this point, plant the seedlings a foot apart.

If planting into containers, select a container at least a foot in diameter and ten inches deep. Follow the seeding and transplanting dates recommended above.

If there is still danger of frost, protect your transplants with floating row covers.

A close up of a Brassica oleracea leaf on a burlap background. The leaf is green, with purple stems and veins and has droplets of water on the surface. In the background is a darker colored leaf, pictured in bright light.

If you are direct-seeding, sow seeds in your garden after the last frost in the spring. You can continue sowing seeds until daytime temperatures are above 80ºF.

You can sow seeds once again in August through September. The latest you should sow seeds outdoors is two weeks before your predicted first frost date.

An easy way to plant is to sow a single row of seeds spaced an inch apart. As seedlings emerge, you can thin them to a foot apart for full-sized plants, or refrain from thinning at all if you want to harvest baby greens.

Get more tips for planting and growing in our general guide to growing kale.

Crop Management: Pests and Disease

The ‘Red Russian’ variety is a relatively easy crop to manage. But there are some common problems to look out for. You can read more about managing and treating wilting leaves and yellow and thinning leaves.

A close up, top down picture of a Red Russian kale variety growing in the garden. Droplets of water on the light green leaves, and purple stems. The background is soil in soft focus.

This type of leafy green vegetable is also susceptible to damage from insects including aphids and cabbage worms.

Floating row covers can keep out a number of common pests, and a strong spray with the hose or hand picking can help to eradicate others. Natural insecticides including neem oil and insecticidal soap can also help to knock down infestations.

Be sure to read labels carefully, and utilize products that are certified as food safe.

How to Harvest

Whether you transplant or directly seed, baby kale of this variety is ready for harvest 25 days after sowing, and full-sized leaves can typically be harvested after 50 days.

Metal baskets at a market containing 'Red Russian' kale on the left of the screen, in bunches with elastic band around them. To the right of the screen are plastic bags containing bunches of arugula and asian spinach. In front of the metal trays are black signs with the name of the vegetables written in white.

Due to the shortening days of fall, your plants will mature more slowly in the fall than in the spring.

This variety is harvested in the same way as other types of kale. One important tip to remember is to only harvest the outer leaves, and never the interior portions of new growth.

This allows the plant to continue to produce new leaves, providing you with multiple harvests.

Post harvest, I’ve noticed this cultivar tends to wilt faster than other greens. To prevent wilting, harvest early in the morning while it is still cool outside. Make sure to take the leaves out of the sun quickly after you’ve collected them.

To remove field heat imparted by the sun in the veggie patch and to prevent wilting post-harvest, dunk the leaves in a tub of cold water. You can then store leaves in a plastic bag or container inside your refrigerator.

Recipes and Cooking Ideas

This type is great served raw in salads due to its tender texture and sweet taste. In fact, according to University of Wisconsin Extension, a light frost can increase its sweetness. I’ve noticed this too.

A close up of a metal basket containing freshly harvested Brassica oleracea leaves. The purple stems and veins contrast with the deep green leaves. The background is a wooden surface.

To enjoy this sweetness, try it with grapefruit, apple, and red onion in this salad recipe from our sister site, Foodal.

Or add an avocado and lemon dressing to give it a deliciously creamy texture. You’ll find a recipe for creamy and colorful raw kale salad also on Foodal.

This type of leafy green also lends itself well to various cooking methods. One of my favorite ways to prepare it is to quickly saute the leaves in olive oil with onion and garlic.

Cooked this way, it makes a great topping for grits, or a delicious companion for a fried egg.

You can also try adding it to some pasta with lemon and cheese as in this recipe from Foodal, or using it in pesto.

Sweet and Tender

If you’re hesitant about growing your own kale because you’re afraid it might be tough or bitter, give ‘Red Russian’ a try. I’ve always loved its tender texture and slightly sweet taste.

Close up picture of Brassica oleracea leaves growing on the plant. Ranging from light green to pale purple, the flat leaves with jagged edges are pictured in bright sunshine.

Have you tried growing this variety in your garden? Let us know in the comments.

And read these articles next to learn more about this cool weather crop:

© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock. Additional writing and editing by Clare Groom and Allison Sidhu.

About Briana Yablonski

Briana Yablonski grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania and currently resides in Knoxville, Tennessee. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in plant sciences and has worked on farms in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Tennessee. Now, she spends many hours planting seeds and moving compost at her market garden. When she’s not immersed in the world of gardening, Briana enjoys walking dogs at the local shelter and riding her bike. She believes that gardening fosters curiosity, continuous learning, and wonder.

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