August 17, 2017

Oriental Greens Quick to Grow from Seed

Tatsoi can be grown in a container

Tatsoi can be grown in a container | Credit: Wikimedia Commons - David Silver (CCA-SA 2.0 Generic)

• By Janine Pineo •

By the time this ode to spring planting is published, I will be sporting a rash of bug bites, my feet will ache, my back will creak, and my hands will be wishing for a bowl or two of Palmolive.

But the vegetable garden should be just about planted with its potatoes and beans and peas and greens. The tomatoes and peppers will be tucked in by Memorial Day, and the melons and eggplants will be coddled under a row cover until it’s warm enough for them to live without a blanket.

All the hassle is for a good cause, for who among us wants to grocery shop when a warm summer day can be spent tiptoeing through the tatsoi?

Don’t drop your ukulele yet. Tatsoi simply is one of the easy-to-grow Oriental greens that make tasty additions to any vegetable garden.

There are a lot of reasons to plant Oriental greens. Many tolerate a frost or two. Most mature quickly but bolt slowly, especially if the larger, outer leaves of each plant are harvested and the heart of the plant is left to grow. They don’t require anything special for care, although I have found a row cover for the first few weeks is beneficial until the plants are big enough to survive insect attacks. Plus, Oriental greens are a good source of vitamins, and each has a unique flavor that opens up a range of interesting culinary possibilities.

Chances are, if you can grow cabbage, you can grow these greens.

Vesey’s Seeds Ltd. and Johnny’s Selected Seeds have a choice crop of varieties, including tatsoi, Joi Choi, Mei Qing Choi and Chinese cabbage.

New for me this season is tatsoi, an Oriental mustard green with celerylike stalks. Tatsoi matures in 45 days, forming a compact rosette, and can be harvested a few stalks at a time. The catalogs recommend planting after the last frost date to prevent premature bolting.

Tatsoi can be used raw in salads, but I expect most of mine will end up in soups and stir-fries. I also plan to see how well it will blanch for freezer storage next winter.

A longtime favorite is Joi Choi, a hybrid, white-stemmed pak choi that produces vigorous plants with dark green leaves that form bunches somewhat similar to celery plants, except Joi Choi has a curvier figure.

Joi Choi matures in about 50 days, growing a foot or so high. It is slow to bolt, especially if the outer leaves are harvested a few at a time. My spring plantings of Joi Choi usually last into the fall and even past a few light frosts.

Thinning the plants has its advantages. Not only do the remaining sprouts have room to expand, but you can eat the small plants you pull out.

Joi Choi works magic in a stir-fry, adding body and a delicate flavor to any mix of vegetables. That same flavor and the different texture are especially good in soups.

I usually blanch a bunch of Joi Choi in the fall and freeze it. It doesn’t stay firm enough for stir-fries, but it’s perfect for soups.

A cousin of Joi Choi is Mei Qing Choi, a miniature pak choi with pale green stems. It’s about half the size of Joi Choi with a shape much like a vase.

Mei Qing Choi is a dynamo of a vegetable. The plants mature in an amazing 35 days, are uniform in shape and size, and are bolt-resistant. My crop last summer kept well all season, although some of the stalks on the older plants got a bit tough toward the end. Mei Qing Choi tolerates heat and cold, but was perkier during cooler weather.

A nice complement to the pak chois is Chinese cabbage, which adds some tang to any dish.

Chinese cabbage differs from the pak chois in its leaf texture (it’s crinkled like lettuce while the pak chois are smooth) and flavor (it’s not called cabbage for nothing). Different varieties have a range of maturity dates — 45 days for Johnny’s Lettucy Type to 70 days for Vesey’s Kasumi — but all can be used in salads, soups and stir-fries.

I’ve grown Kasumi for a few years and found its worst enemy is the flea beetle; one year I lost the entire crop to them. The best protection method is to cover the seeded area with a row cover, stopping the bugs before they can even think about munching on the emerging greens. I usually leave the cover on until the plants are several inches high and the threat of a serious infestation is past.

Chinese cabbage is bolt-resistant if the seeds are planted after the last frost date. Too many nights below 50 degrees will cause the plants to set seed prematurely. In the fall, the mature, barrel-shaped plants can be trimmed, wrapped in newspaper and stored in the root cellar for a few weeks. I also blanch and freeze some Chinese cabbage for soups.

Unlike most vegetables we grow today, Chinese cabbage and its relatives are “new” imports to the Western Hemisphere, according to “Heirloom Vegetables” by Sue Stickland. Records dating back to the fifth century in China mention Chinese cabbage, but not until the late 1800s did it arrive — likely through missionaries — in the United States and Europe.

That would be a really slow boat from China.

Sources for seeds
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Vesey’s Seeds Ltd.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in May 1998.