23 Apr 2022
Ideal beginner plants. Asian greens are very well suited for our climate. Really, we should be growing a lot more South East Asian food plants as our growing conditions have more in common with these places than with European conditions. And this will become even more so with climate change. These plants are prolific and easy and quick. They are annuals. They grow well in all but our hottest months when they tend to bolt to seed. They make so much seed that you will have a never ending supply for sprouts. There’s no way you could plant out and eat them all.
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“Asian greens” is a rather broad phrase. We’ll focus on the brassica family leafy greens. These are all being lumped together because their growing conditions and cooking methods are so similar. There are a number of other Asian greens that will be mentioned more briefly, namely; shungiku, amaranth, and kang kong. Chinese cabbage will be covered in the article on cabbages. Watercress, mizuna and tatsoi will get more of a mention under salad greens.
Brassica Asian greens. It’s complicated. It changes. There’s disagreement. Different sources use different names. There’s subspecies and varieties and cultivars. It’s a world. Cultivars can be wrongly classified, especially as the classification keeps shifting! Different species can’t cross pollinate. In brief, there are three main species / families:
Brassica rapa – The turnip family of Asian origin
These will all cross with each other and with turnips and a kind of canola.
B. rapa subsp. pekinensis – Chinese cabbage / napa cabbage / wombok, yukina savoy
B. rapa subsp. chinensis – bok choy (white stems), pak choy (green stems)
B. rapa subsp. parachinensis – choy sum / yu choy
B. rapa var. nipposinica or B. rapa var. japonica – mizuna, mibuna
B. rapa subsp. narinosa or B. rapa var. rosularis – tatsoi
B. rapa subsp. perviridis – Japanese spinach / komatsuna
B. oleracea – The cabbage family of European origin
This will cross with cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussel sprouts, collards, and kohlrabi.
Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra – gai lan / kai-lan / Chinese broccoli / Chinese kale
B. juncea – The Chinese mustard family
This will cross with other mustards, including wild mustard and a kind of canola.
mustard greens / gai choy
All brassica plants are promiscuous in the extreme. They live to cross pollinate. They are not self-fertile (unlike beans) and you have to have at least two of each cultivar (or species) for pollination to happen, preferably many more for strong ongoing genetics. You don’t need them to be pollinated to get the greens for eating, just the seeds for planting more. They tend to self seed all over the garden if you let them.
If you plan to save seed of more than one Asian green, you have two approaches to choose from.
1. Keep them separated. Carefully choose ones that won’t cross to plant nearby in space and time. Or plant different cultivars in the same family 2km apart!! Or stagger the planting time so that they come into flower at different times and therefore won’t cross pollinate. Or use row covers to prevent pollination of all but one member of a family.
2. Let them mix and match each season as much as they want and just eat what grows. Each season will give a different surprise mix of mustardyness, open vs closed leaves and all the other traits.
Like all brassicas, Asian greens are better over the cooler months. They can all take temperatures down to 0°C and some are perfectly happy in temperatures much much lower! It’s our hot weather, usually mid December through to mid February that they’re not fond of. They will grow, but they tend to bolt straight to seed, even at just a week old with a few leaves. The long daylight hours are also a contributing factor that encourages bolting in brassicas. Their ideal growing temperature range is actually 15 – 20°C. In practice, grow these greens here at any time of year except those couple of hot months.
Asian greens are very easy to grow. They are good plants for beginner gardeners because they’re so easy and you get positive feedback, edible results, in a very short amount of time (on a gardening scale). They are ready to eat as microgreens or salad greens in as little as 21 days / 3 weeks, and ready as mature plants in just 35 – 45 days / 5 – 6.5 weeks depending on variety. This is really quick!
There are two interrelated tips to growing Asian greens well. Or any leafy greens really.
1. They are best grown fast. Not just so they are ready to eat sooner. They will taste a lot better and be so much more succulent. Leafy greens like these that have taken too long to grow will tend to taste bitter and be a bit tough textured to eat.
2. You need to keep a close eye on their food and water.
To grow fast they need not just fertile but very rich fertile soil to begin with. It should be high in organic matter and moisture retentive. Grow a green manure crop and turn it into the soil before planting the leafy greens in that spot. Or add plenty of compost or composted manures. Try to avoid uncomposted manure as this can build up nitrates in the soil which are taken up by plants and passed onto humans especially via leafy greens. It’s a form of nitrogen that can eventually lead to human health issues, though it’s more of a problem in areas with winter snow and very short daylight hours. Make sure the leafy greens receive regular liquid feeds to keep them growing fast.
These plants have quite shallow roots so their soil needs to be kept moist. If they dry out or get too hot at any stage, they bolt to seed and stop making leaves. If they don’t bolt they will tend to taste bitter and extra pungent. Frequent light watering is ideal for the plants and doesn’t leach soil nutrients away where the plant can’t reach like heavy watering can. In warm weather this may mean watering twice a day. Asian greens do very well in a wicking bed situation. In pots they need at least a day’s worth of water accessible in a tray.
For fast growing the Asian brassicas need full sun. Except perhaps over the warmest months when too much heat and light is what you’re trying to avoid. Their soil pH should be in the range 5.5 – 7, the closer to neutral (7) the better to discourage the nasty soil fungus, clubroot, which destroys brassicas and stays in the soil for 10 years. Raised beds are a good idea for good drainage which the plants appreciate and discourages all soil funguses. Protection from wind is necessary but good airflow around the plants is ideal.
Sow seeds direct or as transplants. Seeds should be 12 – 15mm deep, except for gai lan and choy sum which are better at about 6mm. Oversow, putting in 2 – 3 seeds per spot and thin later with nail scissors, snipping the extra plants off at soil level and enjoy them as micro / salad greens. Space transplants or thin seedlings to 10 – 20cm apart. Close spacing is recommended commercially as it results in less fibrous plants with better eating quality.Transplants are ready to go in the ground at 3 – 4 weeks old.
Keep planting regularly, every few weeks, to have an ongoing supply of these greens. Remember they are done in 3 months. They are ideal to transplant into spare spaces where other plants have failed or finished early, or amongst the early stages of slower growing or large plants. They will be done by the time the slower plant gets going and takes up the space.
None of these plants compete very well with weeds in their first few weeks. And none of them compete that well with pests either. Unfortunately, being brassicas, the pests love them – aphids, caterpillars, snails and slugs – can eat entire young plants before your eyes if you’re not paying attention and removing or excluding them. Caterpillars are more of a problem in warm months. Snails and slugs like cool damp conditions and hiding under thick mulch.
Picking these greens for eating. Either cut off the entire plant, or snip off a mature leaf or two from many plants. Don’t just eat the leafy parts. The stems often make a great stirfry veg, sliced up and covered in flavourful sauce. Light cooking is recommended.
Shungiku / edible chrysanthemum / chrysanthemum greens, / chop suey greens / tung ho
Shungiku is a unique flavour. You will probably either love it or hate it. Grow as for the brassica Asian greens but in the cooler months only in this area. It doesn’t like warmth, will bolt easily and the leaves will taste bitter. Older leaves and overcooked leaves will be bitter too. Leaves from young plants 3 – 6 weeks old are much better. Picked leaves will only keep for two days in the fridge. If you are going to let it go to seed, spacing should be further apart than for small young plants for eating. 50cm instead of 10cm. This grows to a metre tall and 50cm wide at maturity. It has daisy like flowers that are very attractive to beneficial insects.
Amaranth / en choy / Chinese spinach
An outstanding, underappreciated plant for our area. Amaranth can be drought proof, flood proof, provides plenty of leafy greens and a generous amount of grain. This is a plant who could feed the world.
Amaranth is a warm season annual (some varieties are short lived perennials) which can grow 60cm – 1.5m in height and 60cm wide. A very easy to grow, self sufficient plant that tends to self seed. It will grow all year round in this area, though it doesn’t thrive over the coldest months as it likes full sun and 21°C or more. Amaranth doesn’t really have any pests or diseases though it is said it can be prone to funguses in overcast wet weather unless it has good drainage, and that many leaf-nibblers can enjoy overindulging on it. Neither of these have been my experience. Amaranth has a great tolerance of drought once established (it’s one of the few C4 species that are not grasses) and flooding rains if it has good drainage. Grow as for the brassica Asian greens but space plants further apart, sow from August to April, and you don’t need to pay close attention to food and water. Although amaranth likes steady moisture and rich soil, it is a hardy, unfussy plant. Leaves can be eaten raw in moderation due to nitrates and oxalic acid, or cooked. Younger leaves taste better. Ready as microgreens after 21 days and for mature picking after about 50 days and will continue to give tasty greens for around 6 months or until flowers form and the leaf tastiness declines. The seed / grain can be collected for eating too.
Kang kong / water spinach
Kang kong emerged in the interviews as a bit of an unexpected favourite among local growers. Their enthusiasm is well justified. It’s ideally suited to our climate, dancing through the height of our hot weather and surviving the colder months, but not frost. It’s super easy to grow and propagate. It has almost no pests or diseases, just keep an eye on caterpillars and aphids. It’s tasty.
Kang kong is a tropical, water loving, perennial plant. In fact, I’ve seen it for sale in Bunnings as a pond plant (single plant, $5!). It grows very well from seed or cuttings. Just pop cuttings in water until they make roots, and plant out in a wet soil situation. Seeds sprout when the soil temperature is at least 20°C. As a water lover, it’s simplest to keep it in a tub or bath or even a wicking bed. It will love that boggy patch in your garden. And it will grow in a regular garden bed if it is kept well watered. Kang kong does not need much attention to grow well but it is a hungry plant. Feed it.
Left to its own devices it stands 30cm tall and then trails as a 1 – 3m long vine-like plant that will root at each node that touches soil. In some parts of the world and SE Queensland it is a pest of waterways. In an edible garden, plant heaps of it and keep it trimmed to 30cm high. Eat the prunings. You can start taking snippings off transplants after just a month, or two months from plants grown from seed. There’s conflicting advice as to whether full sun or part shade is best. It will grow in either. It will need to be in a warmer, frost protected spot over the cool months to survive here as it prefers heat above 24°C and humidity. Depending on your garden you may need to treat it as an annual, or move a motherstock into a sheltered spot as the weather cools. Although kang kong flowers here, it does not seem to set seed. For food resilience you would need to treat it as a cold-tender perennial and keep taking cuttings.
Kang kong only keeps for a few days once picked. Cooking is best done by separating the leaves from the stems. The stems are hollow and very edible. Lightly stir fry the stems first and when partially cooked, add the leaves as they don’t take as long. It is best lightly cooked. The texture dynamic between the hollow and pleasantly crunchy stems and the soft slightly slippery leaves is part of the appeal of eating kang kong. The flavour is mild and spinach-like with no bitterness at all. It can be eaten raw.
Big thanks to:
Kyles Woodbury formerly of The Vegie Gardener, Pete Bufo, Nick Radford from Bellingen Permaculture, John Vernon and the Bellingen Seedsavers blog, John Hodgkinson, Ian Thomas from The Gourmet Garden School, Carole & Phil Helman, Tom from The Mandarin Bend, Andy Truong, Jen Tredinnick, Yasmin Kellner.
Supported by Bellingen Shire Council via the Bellingen Shire Disaster Recovery and Resilience Grant Program Funding
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