Growing Chinese Cabbage

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Chinese cabbage is an unusual, easy-to-grow addition to your vegetable garden.

Looking for an exotic, flavorful, high-yield vegetable for
your late garden? Consider Chinese cabbage!

Pe-tsai (literally, “white vegetable”) is nothing
new to the Chinese gardeners who’ve been growing the
delicious crop for close to 2,000 years. To American
gardeners, however, “Chinese cabbage” remains largely
unknown.

Which is a shame . . . because this heavy-yielding member
of the mustard family not only [A] grows rapidly in cool
fall weather and [B] shows remarkable pest resistance, but
[C] produces a head of distinctive, mild flavor . . . with
none of the stomach-upsetting qualities of the more
familiar European cabbage.

You’ll recognize Chinese cabbage by its tall, columnar
head, which measures up to 20 inches long and 5 or more
inches in diameter. The tightly wrapped, albino leaves of
the head make a fine slaw and are excellent cooked or used
as a “surprise ingredient” in a tossed salad. In addition,
the long, thick-ribbed outer leaves of the head–which
resemble stalks of celery (hence the plant’s alternate
name, “celery cabbage”)–make tasty cottage cheese
boats and savory additions to soups and stews.

Chinese cabbage isn’t at all hard to grow, provided you
satisfy the plant’s few simple needs . . . the primary
requirement being cool weather for the greater
part of the vegetable’s 70- to 80-day maturation period.
(It’ll bolt and go to seed at the slightest hint of
summer-like weather.) Here in northeastern Ohio, we plant
our seeds in the first week of August . . . but then again,
in warmer regions–such as California–it might
be wise to hold off until September or October.

Seed houses offer two varieties of Chinese cabbage: Chihli
and Michihli. I plant only the Michihli variety,
because–in my experience–it heads more
dependably and more uniformly than the other type.

Pe-tsai seems to care little whether the earth it
grows in is clayey, silty, or sandy . . . so long as it’s
rich in humus and/or manure. (As a general rule, if the
soil will support onions and tomatoes well, it’ll do the
same for Chinese cabbage.) Before you sow your seeds, then,
spread manure or humus on the ground and till it in to a
depth of at least six inches. This procedure will not only
ensure that your plants have a rich supply of nutrients,
but will help the topsoil retain moisture (something your
cabbages need in great abundance if they’re to enjoy rapid,
uninterrupted growth).

Once you’ve prepared the ground in this fashion, use the
corner of a hoe to make several inch-deep furrows spaced 20
inches apart . . . then water the furrows, sow the seed
sparsely in the wet trenches, and cover them with a half
inch of soil. In addition to showing where the seeds have
been planted, your furrows act to [A] keep water around the
seedlings’ roots, and [B] concentrate the sun’s warmth a
small amount. Both actions will help get the young plants
off to a faster start.

Let the seedlings come up four to five inches before you
thin them to stand a foot apart. If you intend to replant
the thinnings, don’t just. pull them from dry soil (a
procedure which tends to damage tender root tissues).
Instead, soak the ground well first, then scoop
each young plant out of the ground in such a way as to keep
a good-sized ball of moist soil around its roots. Should
you choose not to save the uprooted plants, you
can–if you want–use their tender foliage in
salads or in cooking.

Once started, your cabbages mustn’t be allowed to
endure extended dry periods
. Drought conditions give
rise to short, loose heads with leaves that have a
decidedly strong taste and somewhat leathery texture. That
doesn’t mean, however, that you should water the plants
constantly . . . just give them a good mulch (old manure is
particularly satisfactory) and see to it that the soil
never becomes parched.

Happily, few insects seem to relish the taste of a
vigorously growing Chinese cabbage. Bugs do chew
holes in the plant’s outer leaves now and then, but these
leaves are destined to be torn off and discarded anyway.
All I can say is, I’ve never lost a crop of
Chinese cabbage to insects (and I don’t use
insecticides, ever).

As your crop matures, pick the most mature heads first.
It’s easy to identify fully ripened heads: simply reach
down and squeeze the plant in the center. If your fingers
meet with firm resistance consider the head “mature”.

Don’t panic if an unexpected frost should strike, for
Chinese cabbage can withstand a considerable amount of
cold. Even a plant that appears to be completely frozen
will be OK to use in salads and in cooking if you [1] strip
away all outer leaves, [2] place the bright, clean head in
a plastic bag, [3] put the bag in the refrigerator, and [4]
let the frozen foliage thaw overnight. The next day, your
cabbage will look–and taste–as though nothing
had happened to it.

Chinese cabbage can be stored in several ways. The easiest
way is just to pack the heads in the fridge’s crisper . . .
however, if you wish to store cabbages for more than a
couple of weeks (or if you have a whole garden full of
heads that need to come indoors), you’d best stash the crop
in the cold cellar. Uproot each plant, discard the outer
leaves, arrange the cabbages in rows with dry straw laid in
between them . . . and your crop will keep for two months
or more.

You can also keep Chinese cabbages growing indoors until
you want them by placing the plants in tubs or deep
containers so that the roots’ll stand in water. (Don’t
shake off any soil that adheres to the roots.)

If you’re looking for a rewarding (in more ways than one)
fall crop, consider pe-tsai. It’s “the cabbage with a
difference”.