By Nancy Pierson Farris – When planning on growing cabbage, you have to ask yourself what kind of cabbage to grow. If you are planning for a cabbage patch that has only one or two varieties of green heads, perhaps a red and a Savoy, you are still missing something. Oriental cabbage adds a whole new dimension to your garden and your dining experience.
The term “Oriental cabbage” includes a dozen or more different varieties. Some are loose leaf, some make compact heads. All are slightly more delicate—requiring care in handling, but producing a vegetable that is easy to digest.
The three most commonly known in this country are Chinese cabbage, which forms a tight head similar to Savoy cabbage; Michihili, which is torpedo shaped, and can remind you of growing romaine lettuce; and bok choy, which is sometimes referred to as celery cabbage.
Bok choy can add a great deal to your cuisine. The spoon-shaped leaves are great in a salad bowl, on a sandwich, or in a stir-fry. The wide, tender ribs can substitute for celery in any recipe, and they are essential for genuine won ton soup.
Since the best temperature for all kinds of Oriental cabbage is in the 60s, plan on an early start to the season when growing cabbage. For best results, these cabbages need to grow rapidly. Bok choy bolt readily, so it is often recommended that seed be sown directly into the garden and plants thinned to 10- to18-inchh spacing.
When growing cabbage, I get the earliest start by sowing seeds in January, about eight to 10 weeks before my last expected spring frost, which comes in late March. When seedlings have second leaves, I put them into plastic pots. The plants will grow in my cool greenhouse, under fluorescent lights, through the dreary days of February. I feed once a week with fish emulsion mixed in a watering can. The seedlings grow rapidly and maintain a good color.
In mid-March, I choose a garden site which will later be shaded by a deciduous tree. This allows the young plants to get plenty of sunlight initially; but as weather becomes warmer, the tree puts on leaves and provides protection from the hot sun of early summer.
I prepare a 25-foot row by digging a trench about eight inches deep. Into that, I spread about 15 pounds of partially rotted bedding from my goat barn. I cover that with four inches of soil. The compost will continue to “cook,” providing bottom heat; as the plant roots grow downward, the compost provides balanced nutrition for my young plants, encouraging continued growth.
I set sturdy seedlings about 10 inches apart in the furrow, snugging soil around them. To guard against cutworms in garden veggies, I slide a toothpick or twig alongside the stem. (Cutworms must wrap all the way around a stem to do their damage.) I cut leafy twigs from an evergreen shrub, and stick them into the ground at a slight angle to shelter the plants for a few days. By the time the twigs wither, the plants have recovered from transplant shock. I water the seedlings daily, just enough to keep the ground moist, but not soggy. I continue this treatment for about a week or 10 days.
To accomplish the irrigation, I lay a soaker hose along the row and turn it on for a few minutes each day. A garden sprinkler would deliver water to the top of the plant, which can promote diseases such as downy mildew and bacterial rot. When the plants look perky and show signs of growth, I taper off the irrigation to once a week soaking.
A few garden pests will attack bok choy. Flea beetles find the tender leaves quite tasty, and cabbage butterflies lay their eggs on the underside of leaves. A good wood ash or diatomaceous earth(DE) can be used for natural pest control. Sprinkle either around the plants to discourage flea beetles, slugs, and snails. Bacillus thurengiensis (Bt), dusted or sprayed once a week, will sicken cabbage worms without leaving any toxic residue.
Aphids may invade the garden, but I seldom worry over them. As the weather warms and aphid populations increase, ladybugs arrive. I don’t know where they come from, or how they know it’s time, but they always get there and quickly do aphids control. If the little pests become a bother, I simply wipe them off the leaves (a squeamish person should wear gloves for this task, since soft-bodied aphids squish under slight pressure). Another alternative would be insecticidal soap or just a hard stream of water across the leaves.
We sometimes get a last cold snap up to two weeks after Easter. After that comes through, I can start setting out the tender plants that wouldn’t survive the cool nights that cole crops tolerate. I find interplanting tomatoes among bok choy is a win-win. The coles are nearing the end of their lifespan; some have already been removed from the row. Young tomato plants can get settled in under the shelter of a bok choy leaf. The strong aroma of tomato may repel cabbage butterflies which are still seeking their host plants.
The bok choy begins to lose quality as the weather warms; this coincides with the first pickings of snow peas. The two make a great combination for stir-fry.
To clear the space for later crops, I harvest bok choy to begin making stir-fry mix for the freezer. In the shed, I pull apart the bok choy head and thoroughly wash the leaves and stems. In the kitchen, I stack several leaves, with stems, and cut them crossways. I place a layer of bok coy into the bottom of several freezer containers. The containers go into the freezer in a place I can access easily. As snow peas increase production, I add a layer of those to each container. Through the spring, I add zucchini, cut into strips, cut onions, and sliced radishes. By mid-summer, the containers are full and can go into a long-term storage area of the freezer.
If you have never tried Oriental cabbage, you may want to plant a few this year. Get them started early, feed them well, and enjoy your harvest. I already have mine in pots and this year, I’m trying a new variety of purple-leaf bok choy. Good luck growing cabbage of your own!
Originally published in Countryside and Small Stock Journal January / February 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.