Leafy Green Duo: Kale & Spinach

By Health Coach Deborah Cox FMCHC, NBHWC

This month (January, 2021), our expert gardener and Health Coach Deb Cox, shares the history for two outstanding winter vegetables, Kale, and Spinach!

Both kale and spinach have received their fair share of publicity over the years, some good some not so good.  From Popeye’s “anti-kryptonite” like portrayal of spinach and an almost cultlike following of kale to people’s remembrance of eating slimy cooked spinach as a kid and a stigma from growing kale in times of hardship and food scarcity (Victory Gardens of WWI and WWII eras), both vegetables have taken a prominent place in our modern culture.

Kale and Spinach have a long history of providing nourishment for people all over the world for more than 2000 years.  Interestingly, to the French kale has become part of the légume oublié (lost & forgotten) category of vegetables. Because of that, we do know that at some time it was grown and eaten in France.

Different Varieties of Kale




Kale’s earliest references comes in around 600 BC.  Ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated and ate kale, as its origins may be traced back to the Northern coasts of the Mediterranean where it grew wild.  It is unclear whether the Romans or possibly earlier by the Celts brought kale (also called “Coles”) to Britain and Northern Europe.  It is also unclear when kale officially made its way to America, some say 1600’s, others say late 1800’s or early 1900’s. 

Historically kale was grown in “Kale Yards” in the Scottish Isles where winters could be brutal.  This cold hearty vegetable was grown inside rock walls 3’-4’ high to protect it from blustery winds, these “Kale Yards” provided nourishment to both the family and their livestock to sustain them through the winter months.  It was so important to their traditional diet that the word Kale became synonymous with “food”, for example the saying “to be off one’s kale” meant to be so ill you did not want to eat anything.

Other countries have a history with kale also, in Germany there is an annual celebration dedicated to eating cooked kale “Grühnkohlfahrt”; a traditional winter dish of the Netherlands is “stamppot boerenkool” which combines kale and mashed potatoes.


The first references to Spinach date back to 226-640AD from Sasanian Persia. Modern day Iran and surrounding areas of the Middle East.  Most likely cultivated from Spinacia tetranda, an edible wild green.  It was then introduced to India and Nepal then on to China where it was called the “Persian Green” or “Herb of Persia” Spinach made its way to the Mediterranean area by the 10th century, the Moors took spinach into Spain in the 11th century and it made its way to Germany by the late 1200’s.  Sometime after that Spinach came to England where they called it the “Spanish vegetable”.  The culinary term “a la Florentine” originated from Catherine de Medici’s love of spinach in the 1500’s.  There are differing opinions as to when spinach made it to the Americas, most evidence leads to our earliest settlers, although some say the 1800’s. 

Many cultures throughout the world use spinach as part of their traditional cuisines.  It was popular with the Seljuk Turks served with meat and a garlic-yogurt sauce; in Cordoba Spain “sajina” or “ásida” was a watery soup with wheat flour and spinach; Mediterranean Jews (the Sephardim) enjoyed “shpongous” a baked dish of sheep’s cheese and spinach.  In 1614 Castelverto called for spinach to be used in the stuffing for tortelli.

Fun fact about spinach:  Why was Popeye so obsessed with spinach???  The story began in 1870 when Erich von Wolf, a German chemist, was studying the iron content of spinach and other green vegetables.  He accidentally misplaced the decimal point when transcribing his notes, changing the iron content of spinach from 3.5mg/100gm to a whopping 35mg.  This then was printed as part of spinach’s nutritional value and spinach became more popular.  Due to this “amazing” health property, the creators of Popeye, in 1929, decided that spinach would be his secret weapon.  Spinach consumption increased in the US by 33%, helped along by the great Depression and the fact that spinach was easy to grow.  The error was corrected in 1937, but the legend about spinach remained.  Unfortunately, as modern science has revealed, even at 3.5mg, the iron in spinach is not readily available for our bodies to use. 

Let’s Grow Some Greens

Both Kale and Spinach are cool weather loving vegetables, liking fertile, well-drained soil, and full sun to partial shade depending on the time of the year.

Spinach, Spinacia oleracea, is in the same family, Amaranthaceae, as beets which also love cool weather.

Kale, Brassica oleracea var. acephala, meaning “without a head” is part of the mustard family, Brassicaceae or Cruciferae.

Both can be grown in containers, taking care to grow kale in pots at least 10” deep to ensure good root development.  Both can be started inside and transplanted to the garden or directly sown outside in the early spring/late winter and/or late summer/fall. 

Temperatures above 80°F will cause spinach to bolt and kale will need shade cloth.  I have found that I am putting shade cloth out before daytime temps reach 80°F to keep my plants from getting stressed, and with our temperature swings here in Nevada I may be putting a row cover over the shade cloth at night.  I can harvest kale all summer, yet spinach is usually done by early summer here.

Spinach is fast-growing, so it is better to re-seed every couple of weeks for a longer harvest than trying to plant a large crop that will mature all at once.  Kale takes a little longer to mature, you can harvest the outside leaves and let the center produce new leaves (cut-and-come-again method) for a longer harvest.  Be sure to thin your kale and spinach plants so there is good airflow between them, as this will reduce the risk of mildew and bug infestations.  Kale will always be sweeter after a frost, which causes its sugar content to rise.

I usually grow these two greens in the same bed and have not had too many issues.  It is good to note that spinach is not happy in acidic soil, pH lower than 6.0, and kale prefers acidic soil, pH 5.5-6.5.  I do not regularly check the pH in my beds, so this may be why some years my spinach does not do as well as my kale.  Always learning something new in the garden.

Aphids can wreak havoc on both vegetables, so keep your eye out for them and hose off your plants, in early morning, to stop a bigger infestation.  Lady bugs and their larvae love aphids so remember a few aphids may not be a bad thing to keep your beneficial insects happy.  Insecticidal soap such as Safer soap or neem may help if the beneficials are not able to keep up.  Cabbage worms may be a problem for kale, keep your eyes open and pick the small green worms off and squish them.  To keep flea beetles away use floating row covers, neem might keep them away but will not kill them.

Wherever you live Kale and Spinach are relatively easy to grow! Happy Gardening! Ready to harvest? Turn your greens into a delicious smoothie with this recipe.


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