Learn how to grow Chinese cabbage, mizuna, bok choy and many other delicious Asian greens, plus get tips for harvesting, storage and seed saving.
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From crunchy Chinese cabbage to buttery bok choy, Asian greens offer an array of flavors and textures for your fall table. Just a small plot of garden space can yield a bountiful assortment of leafy greens, crisp stems and even edible flowers. Most Asian greens prefer shorter, cooler days, so growing them is an easy way to keep producing your own food well into autumn.
Leafy greens of Asian ancestry include mustard cousins such as mizuna, mustard spinach and tatsoi. Red-leafed mustards and garland chrysanthemum offer more variations in flavor and texture.
Leaf ribs or crisp stems of Chinese cabbage and bok choy bring plenty of crunch to stir-fries and salads. Miniature forms of both are great for small gardens.
Tender flower buds come from special varieties of flowering brassicas, which may have a broccoli or a mustard pedigree.
See our chart of Asian greens for more information on these plants and a list of great varieties to try.
In late summer (six to 12 weeks before your first fall frost), sow seeds indoors or direct-sow them in the garden if the weather is hot and dry. Transplant seedlings when they are four weeks old. Some Asian greens can also be grown in spring, but because spring crops are prone to bolting, be sure to choose bolt-resistant varieties, which will hold in the spring garden about 10 days longer than other varieties.
All Asian greens grow best in moist, fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Choose a sunny site, loosen the soil to at least 12 inches deep, and thoroughly mix in a layer of mature compost. Sow seeds about 2 inches apart and a quarter inch deep, then water well to settle the seeds into the soil. After seeds germinate (often in less than five days), gradually thin them to proper spacing. Large Chinese cabbage, Chinese broccoli and flowering mustard should be thinned to 14 inches apart, but small bok choy plants do well with just 6 inches between plants.
You can eat the young seedlings you pull while thinning your crops. As leafy types mature, harvest individual leaves or cut away fistfuls of greens, leaving the plants’ central crowns intact. New leaves will quickly replace the harvested ones. Pull whole Chinese cabbage or bok choy plants as you need them, and gather or protect them all before your first hard freeze. Most Asian greens can survive for several weeks in early winter if they’re inside a row cover or plastic tunnel. Whole heads that are trimmed, rinsed and refrigerated will keep for up to a month. Cut 4- to 6-inch stems from sprouting brassicas when the green flower buds just begin to show yellow, and promptly chill them in the fridge. Bumper crops of any Asian vegetables can be blanched and frozen.
Plants that survive winter in Zone 7 and warmer begin blooming first thing in spring. In cooler zones, make small sowings in early spring for seed-saving purposes. Grow two or three plants of the same type together in a clump, and allow them to flower freely. When the elongated seedpods mature to tan, collect the largest pods in a paper bag. Dry them indoors in a warm room until the seeds fall from the pods if you crush them with your hand. Select your most robust-looking seeds for storage. If stored in a cool, dry place, the seeds of most Asian greens will remain viable for up to five years.
In many areas, you can get a self-sown fall crop by placing seed-bearing branches from your spring crop on prepared beds when the seedpods are ripe. Be sure to isolate varieties of the same species from each other by planting them at opposite ends of the garden, or by growing only one type for seed-saving purposes per season.
Small holes in leaves are most often the work of flea beetles, but this damage is usually minor and disappears when the greens are cooked. Aphids occasionally feed in clusters in crinkled Chinese cabbage leaves, but you can easily control them with two applications of insecticidal soap, applied one week apart. Slugs chew holes in leaves and stems and leave a slimy trail behind them. Handpick the big ones, and pull back mulches that may provide daytime hangouts for slugs and snails. Use iron phosphate baits as a last resort.
Colorful Ornamentals. Red-blushed varieties of Asian greens (such as ‘Osaka Purple’ mustard) make beautiful, edible ornamentals. Try pairing them with yellow marigolds or chrysanthemums.
Easy Chicken Feed. Mizuna and mustard spinach grow back so quickly after harvesting that they make great additions to poultry forage mixtures.
Container Cultivation. Baby bok choy is petite enough to be grown in containers, or you can use the small, upright plants to fill small spaces in beds.
Young plants that grow in cool weather are mild enough to be eaten raw in salads and sandwiches, but with the exception of Chinese cabbage and bok choy, most Asian greens (at any stage of growth) should be cooked until they are well-wilted (at least two to three minutes). Cooking tames the flavor of greens that may taste bitter if sampled raw. Sesame oil or toasted sesame seeds are great flavor accents, and you can use your chopped, cooked greens as a spinach substitute in most recipes. All Asian greens are good sources of calcium and vitamins A, C and K.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.