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.
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.
All of these Asian greens are tender and succulent, but flavors vary from mild and clean to sharp and peppery. Some are deep green, others bright chartreuse. Leaf shapes can be large and broader than chard, or nearly as frilly as parsley. In traditional Japanese and Chinese cooking, these cabbages are lightly steamed or braised, but Americans are finding the young leaves to be ideal salad ingredients. Plant several kinds to get a mix of mild and pungent flavors. They combine well with regular lettuces, too.
Here are the best to try in your garden this fall. They are ranked from mildest flavor to strongest.
Even though mizuna and mibuna are two separate greens, they are so similar in looks, flavor, name, and culture that we group them together here. Each forms a bushy rosette of many long and narrow leaves. Mizuna leaves are frilly, mild-flavored, and deep green. Mibuna leaves are spoon-shaped (broad with smooth edges), and about half the leaf is a flat, thin stem that becomes tough with age, so harvest leaves young for salad use.
Ultimately both will make loose heads the size of a large loose leaf lettuce. The plants will regrow new leaves through several cuttings. Both are slow to bolt and tolerate heat and cold, though mibuna is slightly less tolerant of heat.
Nonheading Chinese Cabbage
These wonderful salad plants have a texture and bulk similar to romaine lettuce. Leaves often have a ruffled surface like a savoy cabbage. The best salad types have very open heads and are often a pale green fading to yellow at the heart, about the color of bibb lettuce. Other kinds are closely related to napa-type (also known as michili or wong bok) heading Chinese cabbage. The outer leaves are slightly hairy, so are not good in salads even if picked young. Not many varieties are available yet. Nichols Garden Nursery offers one called 'Santo', and Johnny's Selected Seeds has one they call 'Lettucy Type'.
Compared with heading Asian cabbages, these varieties mature more rapidly, and resist bolting, cold, and disease better. Under very cool conditions, as in an unheated solar greenhouse or a polyethylene tunnel, any Asian heading cabbage will grow more loose and open.
Choy Sum (types with edible flower stalks)
Think of these types of choy sum as Asian broccoli raab -- broccoli raab is a very close relative -- because it is also in the turnip family and not a true broccoli. Though the tender young flower shoots of any of the Asian brassicas can be delicious, choy sum types have been developed especially for their flower stalks and buds. For added color, try the purple-stemmed varieties.
Vegetables in this group can look very different from each other. Some form tight heads or swollen edible stems. Most are leafy and similar to the mustard greens grown in southern states and to komatsuna. As candidates for fast, fall salads, the Asian mustards tend to be stronger flavored, take longer to mature (60 days or more) and be more prone to bolting in heat than B. rapa varieties. But two are excellent: 'Osaka Purple' and 'Red Giant'.
Giant-leafed types put color and zing in salads. Supermarket mesclun packages often contain some 'Osaka Purple' or 'Red Giant'. Mesclun seed blends are increasingly using these as well. It is best to harvest them when young.
Tablespoon-sized leaves have a mild texture and tang. Mature leaves can be huge (12 by 12 inches) and too hot for salads.
The jagged-edged "green-in-snow" mustards are very cold hardy but become peppery when fully mature (leaves about 12 inches long). For salads, harvest when the leaves reach 4 inches, and combine them with milder greens.
Jack Ruttle is a former senior editor at National Gardening.
Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening