Growing and Storing Chinese Cabbage
The Venerable "Chinese Cabbage"
If you've eaten Asian fare you've probably had Chinese cabbage. Probably the greatest vegetable staple of the Orient, it's not often grown in Western Kitchen Gardens. Even most Market Gardeners don't grow it.
Time to change that.
Varieties: Open-Pollinated or Hybrid?
Chinese cabbage is available in Hybrid and Open-Pollinated varieties. Unlike many other vegetables, I have not noticed a vast difference in taste between them. (So often the Open-Pollinated ones are so much better flavored than the Hybrids.)
The primary goals plant breeders have in mind when engineering hybrids are; uniform ripening times to facilitate mechanical harvesting, adaptation to optimum levels of fertilizer and water, resistance to disease, and ruggedness to withstand transport. Seed cannot be successfully saved from Hybrids.
Open-Pollinated varieties, while also often created by plant breeders, are "Traditional" types that have evolved slowly over time by generations of farmers. They are well adapted to the local growing conditions where they originated. They may not, (I emphasize 'may not'), yield as well as Hybrids, but they also out-perform them when grown under less than ideal growing conditions.
Open-Pollinated (Heirloom) seeds have a longer life. The seeds of the Nozaki Chinese Cabbage that I grow is viable without substantial loss of germination for 5 or more years in my experience; whereas Hybrid varieties' germination rate drops off the cliff after 2 years.
Some Varieties: Sources and reviews.
Most seed companies don't carry too many varieties of Chinese Cabbages, and what you will find are mostly hybrids.
The ones I've listed below are ones I've personally tried. Hybrid varieties' names are followed by "(F-1)".
NOZAKI EARLY: Large heads, early, uniform heading for an open-pollinated variety. For me; the best flavored and the standard one that I grow. Simply put: The best all-around Chinese Cabbage.
MICHIhili: A tall variety. Not for storage. Leaves have thick, very juicy stalks; sort of like a really thick celery, but no strings. Stalks the best part raw. Leaves too prickly until cooked. Definitely recommended for cooking fresh.
HONG KONG(F-1): A hybrid version of Nozaki. Cannot see much difference except that the taste is not quite as flavorful as Nozaki.
CANTONNER WITKROP (F-1): Excellent European variety. Good heads.
WONG BOK: Large plants. Staggered heading up times. Lot of outer foliage. (Which are good fodder for stock)
BILKO (F-1): Taller, thinner heads, but good weight. Stored okay.
OPTIKO (F-1): Squatter, barrel-shaped heads, almost round. Nice weight. Didn't store as well as Bilko or Nozaki. Especially attractive to millipedes when seedlings and slugs when older.
SUZOKO (F-1): Good-sized heads. Indistinguishable from Nozaki here.
HOUSHU: An earlier heading one. Smaller sized heads.
GRANAT: A Michihili-type. Stores better than most Michilinis.
SPECTRUM (F-1): An European solid headed Cabbage. Did well with minimal care.
Y.H. Evergreen: (www.evergreenseeds.com) has the largest selection of Chinese Cabbages (and all other Asian vegetables for that matter).
Pinetree Garden Seeds: (www.superseeds.com) carries Optiko and Soloist this year.
Johnny's Selected Seeds: (www.johnnyseeds.com) Has Minuet(F-1), Rubicon (F-1), and Bilko (F-1).
Turtle Tree Seed: (www.turtletreeseed.org): Carries open-pollinated varieties such as Granat, Nozaki Early, Houshu.
John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds: www.kitchengardenseeds.com) carries Michihili, One Kilo.
The Natural Gardening Company: (www.naturalgardening.com) has Bilko (F-1)
Growing Chinese Cabbage: When to start the seeds.
This plant grows best here in Upstate New York as a fall crop. Spring plantings invariably bolt (i.e.: Send up flower stalks) before they make a full head. The heat of summer renders the soil too warm for these plants too, making the plants sickly. This state renders them extremely vulnerable to ravaging by Flea Beetles, slugs, and cutworms.
After many years of experimentation, I had settled on starting them in mid-July. However, nothing stays the same. By September 20th the July planted crop had full, solid heads. However, extreme summer heat is now lasting into October thanks to Climate change. The bacterial disease called "Yellows" strikes when the soil temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit or so, which is too warm for these plants. Aptly named, the leaves turn yellow, starting with the outside ones, and the plant wilts, then rots.
I now recommend not starting the seeds until August. Mid-August is a good target. This way the heads will be maturing at the end of October.
(40 years ago it was incomprehensible that the Autumn would become so warm here.)
Peter Chan's Method of Starting Seeds
I have found that the method described by Peter Chan in his "Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way", is the best one.
Chinese cabbage is very touchy about having its roots disturbed by transplanting. I've tried direct seeding them in the garden, but never had good results. The same holds true for starting them in a cold frame and then transplanting them. Too risky, too many casualties.
Making the Planting Tubes
Using a template made of cardboard, I cut 2" x 4" strips of newspaper. I glue one 2" edge and roll them into little open-ended tubes which are stood upright in a shallow box. After letting them dry overnight, the tubes are filled with fine potting soil to within 1/2" of the top. I then water them and again allow them to sit overnight.
The next day I drop one seed each into the tops of the tubes. These are then covered with a thin layer of potting soil. (Just deep enough to bury the seed from view, but taking care not too bury them too deep.)
These are then watered, and the box of tubes is put in a warm (65-70 degree F.) place. If desired, you can stretch Cling Wrap over the top of the box to retain moisture better.
After 5 to 7 days the little plants emerge.
Fill the tubes
Transplanting Out the Little Plants
The beauty of Peter Chan's method is that these plants can be transplanted out as soon as the first leaves appear.
Using either a dibble, a trowel, or a hoe, make holes just big enough for the tubes in a bed where you intend to grow the Chinese Cabbage.
Drop one of the tiny plants-in-a-tube into each hole, pull a little soil around the tube and gently firm the soil around the tube: 3 seconds per plant is all it takes.
After all are in, give them a drink of water, being careful not too water too hard. You don't want to break the tiny plants' stems.
That is it. I've never had any problems using this method. Oh, I may lose one or two weak plants, but that's expected under the best of circumstances.
This method is so gentle on the plant there is no need to provide shade for the transplant as you would otherwise.
Make sure you don't plant Chinese Cabbage where you grew any Brassica the last 2 or 3 years. Like all members of that genus, it is susceptible to Club-Root, a fungal disease that causes plants to wilt during the day and eventually kills it by attacking and deforming the root. (See "Water and Soil Requirements" below).
(That is, unless your soil has had a lot of oyster shell tilled in for several years at least. This has worked fine in preventing Club-Root and even correcting garden plots that could nver grow Brassicas.
Peter Drucker, the canny New York City Market Gardener of the 19th century had a foreman who noticed that in soils with lots of pieces of shells, there was no Club-Root.)
Growing Chinese Cabbage: Water and fertilizer requirements.
Chinese Cabbages are among the easiest vegetables to grow. Unlike European Cabbages, the Chinese varieties don't require very rich soil or the use of fertilizers. Any moderately fertile soil will grow beautiful heads.
Chinese Cabbage likes 'sweet' soil, that is; soil with a p.h. of 7 or above. The higher the p.h. the less likely it is to have trouble with Club-Root. Adding wood ash to the soil where you will be growing Chinese Cabbage is a good idea. Even better is to incorporate a lot of ground Oyster shell to your soil beds, as I've mentioned. After a few years your soil there will be basically invulnerable to Club-Root.
What it does require is water. The root systems of these plants are shallow, so a daily watering is necessary. Better a light watering daily than a deluge once a week..
When they are small, I give them 5 seconds of water from a sprinkler can. As they grow, I increase the time they are watered. The basic idea is to water the plant until you see water puddling on the surface of the ground at the base of the plant. That means the ground has been saturated in that spot: Move on to the next plant.
As they grow the time I water each plant thus increases. By the time the heads are filling out, I'm up to a miunte of watering per plant. At this time I get lazy and switch to a sprinkler.
Chinese Cabbage lovers: Pests and Critters.
If my experience is any guide, you won't have problems with four-legged Critters trying to eat your Chinese Cabbage.
I have been amazed over the years how uninterested rabbits, woodchucks, and deer are in pillaging my crops of this plant. Rabbits and Woodchucks in particular love to feast of Broccoli, another member of the Brassica genus, yet they'll saunter right on by the Chinese cabbage.
Invertebrates however love these juicy plants. I've mentioned Flea Beetles already. They are a concern especially during dry periods, and they mainly attack the outer leaves. Planting mid-summer or later bypasses their most flourishing time; May and June.
Slugs and snails are a season-long pest, especially when the heads are filling out. They can be handpicked from where they hide; down in the folds and under the leaves on the ground.
It's disgusting, but the best sure-fire bait to attract slugs in one place to squash them is the squashed bodies of other slugs. They seem to love to slurp up the remains of their flattened kin. (Either that or they are paying respects to the corpse: You choose.)
A more refined method of control is to sprinkle pellets containing Spinosad, a product derived from naturally occurring bacteria. It is currently approved for Organic Farming. This also controls to an extent the Fall Armyworm, Spotted Cutworm and related species that attack heads when fully-formed.
The Cabbage Butterfly is another pest, though not as troublesome for us here as they are on Broccoli s and European Cabbages. There exists another bacteria-derived treatment, Bacillus thuringenesis, which if applied throughout the season controls the damage done by these caterpillars.
For our part; we've grown in the habit over the years of keeping old badminton or tennis rackets near where we are growing the plants. These are effective in killing the butterflies before they lay their eggs. Granted, it does not exterminate them all. But it does limit their damage.
When and How to harvest
Chinese cabbage can stand temperatures without damage down to around 20 degrees F. Anything lower may damage or kill it.
Wait to harvest until the storage area is cooled down to around 45 degrees F. and the heads feel very firm, even hard when you try to squeeze them with two hands. Cut the mature plants off at ground level. I use a pair of pruning snips, but a sharp knife works fine. After harvest, remove the flamboyant outer leaves until you get to leaves that cling to the head fairly well. These leaves are the sacrificial ones that will dry, shrink, and form a protective husk around the head.
Check the heads as you trim them for evidence of boring by Spotted Cutworms. (Amathes c-nigrum)) They leave a finger-sized hole in the head as they burrow down. Slugs also love this plant, but most of them will be found on the discarded outer leaves. (Chickens love these leaves by the way. Otherwise, they are a fine addition to the compost piles.
How to Save Your Own Chinese Cabbage Seed
Saving seed yourself is money-saving as well as bringing you into a deeper understanding of the plants' full life cycle.
Chinese Cabbage (Brassica juncea) is a biennial, which means it lives two years naturally. Its ancestors sprouted from seeds dropped in late summer. The small plants over-wintered, then in the spring shot up their flower stalks. They set seed, which dropped in late summer, thus continuing the cycle.
As long as you're not growing seed for seed companies (which I have done in the past) I have a simple method.
In late May so some seeds in the little tubes described above and set out the little plants after they sprout somewhere with elbow room. These plants will get at least four feet tall.
Now wait until they begin to send up their flower stalks. Pull up and discard any sickly plants and the first ones to send up flower stalks. What you want to save seeds from are the most robust, latest flowering plants.
You need at least 2 plants to insure viable seed. As Chinese cabbage will cross with any other Chinese Cabbages, Bok Choys, or early turnips, if you're growing them don't let them go to flower while trying to save seed.
When the plants have pretty much stopped flowering ,(They will continue to put out new flowers for a long time, but less and less), and the skinny seed pods near the base of the plant are brown and have brow, shiny seeds in them, it is time to harvest.
Cut the flower stalks off with a pair of clippers or a sharp knife. Now it has to 'cure' (i.e.: the seeds must finish drying and hardening). I stuff the flower stalks in old grain sacks and hang them out of the reach of mice in a dry, airy, shady place (like from the rafters in a shed, barn, or garage. Now forget about them for awhile.
I usually clean my seeds in the winter, when there is less pressing.
There are three steps to cleaning your seed: Threshing, sifting, winnowing.
Threshing is accomplished by simply taking that sack of seed stalks, tying it closed, and beating the bee-jeebers out of it with a stick. (Great opportunity to put some repressed anger to good use.)
Now open the sack, and pull out the stalks. You'll be left with dry pod shells and shiny brown-black spherical seeds. That was 'sifting' in a crude sense.
Pick a breezy day. Get two pails. Pour the seeds and pods into one of them. Stand where the breeze is unobstructed and slowly pour the contents of the pail held in one hand into the empty pail held in the other. See how the breeze wants to carry off the empty pods? That's what you want. Experiment cautiously with how far you hold one pail above the other one, allowing the wind more time to clean your seeds. You don't want to hold them so far apart that the wind can carry off your seed too.
You're done when the seed in the bottom of the pail has only a few pieces of chaff left in it. Pick out what you can that wasn't carried off by the breeze (usually a few pieces of stalk), pour into a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid. label it with the variety and date, and store where cool and dry.
Without taking any special care, this seed will remain viable for a few years. Normally I replenish my seed every three years. I've found that the germination is excellent up to that point.
Storing Chinese Cabbage
We’ve been growing Chinese Cabbage for market and ourselves for over 20 years now, and have found the best way to store it long term. You will need a place dry and cool, preferably right around 40 degrees F. With such a place, the plants can last in storage till the Spring Equinox for us.
If the temperatures in your storage area drop below freezing a bit for a little while the heads may freeze, but if they are brought back to above freezing temperatures the plant will thaw out fine. Just don't cut the leaves off until then. I've found that leaves detached from the head do not recover from freezing.
Traditionally in China the crop was stacked like cordwood in an earthen -walled storage pit, which creates the ideal storage conditions that you should try to emulate as closely as possible. There is a description, as well as a host of other excellent information in Joy Larkom’s 1991 book “ Oriental Vegetables: The Complete Guide for the Garden Cook” .
Another treasure trove is "Farmers of Forty Centuries" by F.H. King for an in-depth look at farming practices in the turn-of-the-20th-century Orient,
We store the trimmed heads standing up in a wooden crate. Bushel baskets will work well too. But don’t use a plastic cooler or any material that traps moisture. If you store it like that, the moisture given off cannot dissipate and the plant will set roots and send up a flowerstalk through the center of the head. What you want is something that allows good air circulation. And wood is excellent because it also absorbs excess moisture from the plants.
Ideas for use.
Chinese Cabbage is quite versatile; mild flavored and juicy.
Try it, (naturally), in your stir fries, but don't stop there.
You can use the leaves on sandwiches in place of or with lettuce.
Add it chopped or shredded to a tossed salad.
Substitute it for European Cabbage in Cole Slaw recipe.
Make what I call my "Winter Salad". Coarsely chop Chinese Cabbage, add shredded Carrot, diced apples, walnuts, raisins and finely sliced shallots. Toss with a vinaigrette. Salt to taste. Or try any of your favorite dressings; like Blue Cheese, Mustard-Maple Syrup, or ranch.