Most of us have at some stage in our lives been urged to ‘eat our greens.’ And our parents were right all along – ongoing research into brassicas has found that no other vegetable group is as high in terms of vitamin A carotenoids, vitamin C, folic acid and fibre. Even more impressive, their growing reputation as an antioxidant vegetable group means that eating your greens can lower the risk of numerous forms of cancer.
As a food gardener, you are the custodian of your family’s health. The brassica family is bigger than one thinks as it includes Asian greens like Chinese cabbage, tatsoi, bok choy, pak choi and the various mustards.
What makes Asian greens so appealing is that they are an easy-to-grow, quick-to-harvest crop, generally untroubled by pests and diseases. The leaves are picked as they are needed, which means a constant supply through winter. Chinese cabbage can also be picked young or left to form a head.
3 things you need to know:
1. Grow Asian greens in full sun to semi-shade in rich, well-composted soil.
2. Water regularly and don’t allow the soil to dry out.
3. Feed once a month with a nitrogen-rich liquid fertiliser, especially if you are harvesting the leaves daily.
Mizuna grows 35-40cm high and wide, with serrated light green leaves that have a mild mustard flavour. Mizuna needs more moisture than other oriental vegetables. It tolerates frost and is ideal for really cold gardens.
Pak choi has broad white stems and dark green glossy leaves that look like paddles. The stems are like crunchy and the leaves have a pleasant mustard flavour. It tolerates a wide range of temperatures and doesn’t bolt easily.
Tatsoi is a variety of Chinese cabbage. It forms a compact, flat rosette close to the ground. The leaves have a buttery and slightly sweet mustard flavour. A light frost is said to improve the flavour. It has a long harvest period and is slow to bolt.
Chinese cabbage is cylindrical in shape, has green and white leaves and stems that are very tender and delicious. It grows faster than conventional cabbage, taking about 70 days to harvest. The leaves can be picked as soon as they are about 20cm long or can be left until the head is fully formed. It is good for coleslaw or stir-fried, sautéed or steamed.
Japanese ‘Red Giant’ mustard has large, reddish-green leaves that grow up to 30cm long and are slightly hairy, with an intense, hot-mustard flavour. The leaves are best eaten in winter because the taste becomes too pungent in summer.
‘Red Frills’ mustard has frilly red leaves with a hot mustard flavour. Eat newly germinated leaves as microgreens or let them grow larger for use as a baby leaf in salads. Mature leaves can be used in stir-fries. Plants grow 60cm high and 40cm wide and are very decorative
Chinese mustard ‘Green in Snow’ has frilly green leaves with white veins. It has a very mild mustard flavour that intensifies in older leaves. It is a hardy plant, tolerates a wide range of soil types and grows into a substantial plant, 1m high by 80cm wide.
Don’t forget lettuce – It may not have the same nutritional benefits, but lettuce can be sown, or seedlings transplanted, in most gardens that are sheltered from frost. Plant a range of differently coloured leaf lettuces – they take up less space than conventional head lettuces. In winter, lettuce needs full sun and consistently moist soil. Adding Epsom salts to the water improves the flavour.