Fast-Growing Salad Greens
By: Jack Ruttle
The fast-growing greens of the Chinese cabbage family are nearly ideal garden vegetables for fall and winter. Versatile enough to be enjoyed boiled, sauteed, and stir-fried as well as fresh, they lend a sprightly, nutty, or sharp flavor and succulent texture wherever they appear. And they are a gardener's dream: sow the seeds and harvest 30 to 50 days later. These greens are faster, more productive, and easier to manage than lettuce or other Asian specialties such as edible-leaved amaranthus and chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum coronarium).
Look for these vegetables in seed catalogs under a variety of terms: "Specialty Greens," "Oriental Greens," or simply "Chinese Cabbage." The latter term is a misnomer, however, as all of them-even the head-forming ones-are really in the turnip family (Brassica rapa), not the cabbage family (B. oleracea).
As you search the catalogs, be open-minded about spelling. In Asia all of these plants have aliases and alternative spellings, depending on the local culture. Some American seed catalogs helpfully list several spellings. If they sound alike, they are likely the same. For instance, bok choy equals pak choi.
How to Grow
A key feature of these plants is their capacity to germinate and grow rapidly in warm weather, a condition that still exists in most gardens in September. Yet they tolerate cold too, exactly the trait necessary at harvest time a month or two later. But you don't need to wait 45 days to start picking. Begin to pick thinnings and outer leaves about 30 days after planting. You can also grow any of them as a cut-and-come-again crop, scattering seed about an inch apart in wide bands. Clip the young plants to within an inch or two of the soil as needed, allow them to regrow, then clip again.
Begin sowing seed about 60 to 45 days before the first frost date in your area. In mild weather, germination takes three to five days. Hot weather that would inhibit lettuce seeds is not a deterrent. Harvest the first thinnings as soon as four weeks later. Although the Asian greens excel for late summer and fall planting, you can plant them other times, too. The only caveat is they have a tendency to bolt to flower and seed as days become longer in spring.
Although direct-sowing is simple and works well, it's best to start these crops in flats or in plastic trays with individual cells. This allows more control over water, nutrients, and light levels, and it allows you to quickly fill in garden space that opens up as the main summer crops mature and are removed.
Because all these vegetables grow so quickly, they do best when given very fertile soil and a steady supply of water. Work 1 to 2 inches of compost (or 1/2 inch of composted manure) into the ground at planting time. In dry weather, water twice a week, or use drip irrigation.
If you want to extend the harvest even longer into fall, protect young plants with row covers or cold frames. Light frosts don't harm them, but night temperatures in the 28° to 25° F range will reduce quality and slow growth, even when plants aren't damaged. In most climates, covering plants will allow several more weeks of production.
Asian cabbages (more properly turnips) are plagued by the same pests as all vegetables of that family: flea beetles, cabbage moths, and slugs. Flea beetles are devastating to seedlings, and beetle shot holes can disfigure the leaves badly. Row covers help here, too because they prevent the beetles from reaching the plants.
The other significant pest of these plants is the cabbage moth. Again, row covers prevent the moths from laying eggs. Once plants grow large and the covers need to come off, control the moth larvae with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). Slugs are also inordinately fond of these greens. Control them by handpicking or with traps.
If you can keep the pests away, as well as provide good, moist, well-drained soil, you're sure to have abundant salads with a refreshing new twist at your house this fall. And when you get tired of salads, can always stir-fry these cabbages or cook them as you would other favorite greens.