Asian crops add diversity to a garden patch of greens. Varieties pictured are (left to right) Red Streaked mizuna, Joi Choi pac choi, Red Komatsuna and Red Giant mustard.
Photo by S. Cory Tanner
As a Southern boy who loves his greens, stewed collard, turnip and mustard greens were all I knew for years. When kale hit the scene in a major way, my horizons expanded a bit.
Lately, I’ve become a big fan of a whole treasure trove of greens from the Far East. Generally lumped together as “Asian greens,” these vegetables offer incredible diversity in flavors, colors and leaf shapes, and they rival both kale and traditional Southern greens in nutrition. Some, like Red Giant mustard greens, were first sold as ornamental plants. Now, we see them showing up increasingly in restaurant salads and at farmers markets—because they’re tasty!
The Asian greens section of seed catalogs keeps expanding with unique new options. Most, such as pac choi, tatsoi and mizuna, are staples in Asian cuisines like Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese. All of them belong to the mustard (or brassica) family, with varying degrees of pleasantly spicy flavors.
Seeds of these crops are very small and should be planted shallow (about a half-inch deep). Sow them thickly in the garden, and thin them out later to the recommended spacing for each plant. Soil crusting can be a challenge to germination, so keep the soil surface evenly moist until seedlings emerge. A thin layer of straw scattered over the planting can help decrease crusting.
The tender thinnings of greens are completely edible and make great additions to salads. Because I often fail to thin crops on time, sowing seeds in cell packs and then transplanting to the garden at the recommended spacing is a good option for me. Sow one to three seeds per cell in a good-quality germination soil mix; keep soil moist until germination. Transplant greens when they are 2 to 3 inches tall.
Like most brassica greens, Asian greens grow best in the gradually cooling weather of fall. As a bonus, they are attractive cool-season annuals that fill a niche in landscape beds. Sow seeds or set transplants in the garden between mid-August and early October. You can also grow these greens in spring, but bolting (premature flowering) can be a problem if a spurt of warm weather shows up. Try using bolt-resistant varieties for spring plantings, and transplant seedlings instead of seeding directly into the garden. Spring planting dates are January through February on the coast and in the Midlands, mid-March in the Upstate.
Asian greens are fast-growing crops and benefit from even soil moisture and adequate fertility. Have your soil tested for these crops, and fertilize according to the results. Underfertilized greens will yellow and are more likely to bolt.
Greens are poor competitors with weeds, so keep your patch well weeded.
Pests common to cabbage and collards will also attack Asian greens. These include cabbageworms and cabbage loopers. Both are caterpillar pests and are susceptible to organic-approved Bt insecticides like Dipel and Thuricide. Harlequin bugs may become a problem in warmer weather and are best managed by hand removal.
Some cutleaf mustards, such as Scarlet Frills, Golden Frills, and Ruby Streaks, have naturally lacy leaves that more than one gardener has mistaken for insect-eaten foliage. Don’t be alarmed; these frilly-foliaged greens add a fine texture to both the garden bed and the salad plate.
When small, the leaves of Asian greens are excellent eaten raw and lend a mild spice to salads. They can be harvested individually by taking a few tender leaves from each plant, or you can cut the whole plant just above the growing point and allow the plant to sprout new leaves. Mature plants are generally best eaten cooked because of their increased pungency and are great sauteed or stir-fried.
S. CORY TANNER is an area horticulture agent for Clemson Extension based in Greenville County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.