Growing Asian Herbs and Vegetables
A range of herbs and vegetables that are so easy to grow...
Anyone who's visited the markets of India, Japan or Southeast Asia will know the feeling of intrigue and excitement you experience when you pass by the vegetable sellers with their beautiful spreads of herbs and vegetables. The good news is that many of these vegetables are now widely available in the west, providing those of us in more tropical climes with a cornucopia of new and interesting plants to experiment with in the garden. What's more theyâre easy to grow, super productive and nutritious, and your family will love the exotic meals you serve up with this delicious new palette of ingredients.
This photo of the vegetable markets in Hong Kong is by KT Ng and is available at www.sxc.hu/profile/nkt
Let's start with something easy
Asian greens are so quick they're ready to harvest before you know it!
Many gardeners start out with the greens because they’re so quick and easy to grow. The most readily available are mizuna, chinese mustard, choi sum, bok choy, pak choi and tat soi, all of which are members of the Brassica family and thus related to their well-known cousins broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, among many others. All are delicious stir-fried on their own with garlic and sesame oil, or in salad or laksa.
Asian greens germinate readily in the spring or autumn and can be ready to eat in as little as six weeks. They require a fertile soil rich in organic matter so add plenty of compost before planting seed directly in the garden. Thin seedlings to space plants about 20 to 30cm apart. In summer be careful to water consistently or the plants will bolt to seed, although mizuna and mustard are more tolerant of hot dry conditions. Outer leaves can be cut individually for a sustained harvest or cut the whole plant at ground level.
Now for something a little more unusual
Give daikon radish, luffa and snake beans a try...
Yes, those amazing looking sponges can be grown at home! Related to cucumbers and melons this vigorous vine needs plenty of space and when small the fruit can be eaten much like a small zucchini. The leaves, blossoms and seeds are also tasty. When fully mature the fruits form into the dense fibrous sponges and after drying on the plant can be used in the shower or as a biodegradable sponge in the kitchen.
Plants are frost tender and thrive over the summer months. Seed can be planted directly into the garden or if you want to start early and your area is prone to frost sow indoors and then transplant. Plants will take off and need a strong support such as a fence. They need very little care and attention, apart from ensuring they don't overtake and smother your other plants!
Another easy asian vegetable to try is the chinese or daikon radish, another member of the Brassica family. These delicious cylindrical root vegetables are mildly spicy when young but get quite a bite to them if left to stay in the ground for a while. Available in a wide variety of colours these radishes can grow as long as 40 or 50cm in a good deep soil. They are crisp and delicious grated in salads and added to stir-fries, or experiment with Korean pickled daikon or kimchi.
Daikons are not fussy about their soil and are even sometimes used by gardeners to break up heavy clay and make it more useful for other fussier vegetables. They do however prefer the cool of spring or autumn over summer, and like so many plants in the Brassica family, are inclined to bolt to seed if the weather becomes too hot and dry.
Snake beans are a fantastic vegetable to grow with kids because they look so cool! Pods are long and thin and can grow over 50cm long making them fun for kids to harvest and eat. They're tender and stringless so they're quick and easy to add to soups, stews and stir-fries, plus they're tolerant of poor soils and hot dry conditions making them incredibly easy to grow.
Seeds should be sown in the spring directly into the garden about 3 to 4 cm apart and 3cm deep. Water in well and be sure to provide a strong trellis - these beans grow vigorously! Do not water again until the seedling emerges, then keep moist for a long summer cropping season.
And for a little more flavour
Try some traditional asian herbs and spices
Herbs are an integral part of Asian cooking and a must have in the garden if you're really going to enjoy the unique flavours of asian cuisine straight from your garden. Many are perennial, which as any experienced gardener knows means less work and more harvesting. Experiment with these commonly available herbs.
* Lemon Grass
* Chilli plants
* Vietnamese mint
* Thai basil
* Garlic chives
Want to learn more? - Check out "Asian Herbs and Vegetables" by Penny Woodward
Being a busy little bee at present it took me some time to get into this book but when I did I was not disappointed.
It begins with an excellent introduction that incorporates discussion of the culture, climate and lifestyle that birthed Asian cuisine, information on the nutritional value of Asian herbs and vegetables and detailed descriptions of the major plant families and they're various contributions to balanced nutrition and delicious eating.
It then launches directly into the nitty gritty. Over 90 plants are listed alphabetically by botanical name along with their plant families, however the author has also included many of the common Asian and English synonyms so the inexperienced reader will have no problem finding the particular plants they are looking for.
To make things even easier, not to mention more tempting, each plant is accompanied by at least one full colour photograph. This makes the book a delight to read. Each entry contains information on the plant's cultivation requirements (including ideal climate, soil, propagation, fertilisation, water needs and harvesting) as well as a detailed description of the plant and its edible parts, notes on the plant's origins and history and how it can contribute nutritionally to our diet today.
Some of the plants in this book will be familiar to all; coriander, lemongrass, water chestnut, chilli, turmeric and Bok Choy are just some of the common Asian vegetables many of us eat regularly. Others you may not have heard of, or are rare enough to warrant some excitement by experienced gardeners who have been looking for information; fish plant, lipstick tree, pandan, sauropus and rakkyo are a few of the lesser known species in this book.
With its easy to read style and full colour illustrations its very likely this book will be only the beginning of your interest in exotic herbs and vegetables, however it is comprehensive enough to keep you busy in the garden for years without having to read another thing on the subject. It pretty much has it all including a detailed common name index of both English and Asian names and suggestions for further reading.
In Asian Herbs and Vegetables Penny Woodward has certainly proved herself not only as a gardener but as a wonderful writer and researcher as well. This is a book well worth adding to your collection.