The Japanese vegetable bed is in!

Well, the “yet more Asian greens bed”. Besides the black summer Bok Choy, a vegetable that is eaten all over Asia, and today the world- I’ve planted two vegetables that are fairly particular to Japan, Komatsuna and Shungiku.

Komatsuna is of course a brassica- but Shungiku isn’t. More on that later.

Before I planted, but after I ripped out the spent sunflowers and tomato plants, I had a choice to make. This is an old Yerba Buena plant which despite inclement conditions in this bed- is still trucking along.

Yerba Buena likes lots of water and shade and in this bed it got neither. It’s still pretty good though- so I tucked it’s stems to the side and got to work clearing the weeds.

I had scattered some California poppy seeds around to add some color to the bed, but they never flowered. I didn’t pull them until now because I like the look of poppy foliage. What I don’t like about poppies is their damn taproots. It’s one of the reasons they’re such a successful flower/weed in drought prone California, a taproot is a much more water efficient root then surface roots. It does make clearing them from a bed a little difficult.

Once the bed was clear of old mulch and old poppies- it was time to amend it. A bag of compost should do the trick, but Komatsuna likes it’s nitrogen so I also mixed in a few good handfuls of biofish.

I anticipate this being a bed that will suck up a lot of maxsea, but I’m ok with that.

Of course before you plant anything you need to have a good idea of where everything is going to go.

Bok Choy needs some space in order for it to get full size, but how much space it needs really depends on the variety. Black summer is sort of a medium density and taller Bok Choy so you can go a little closer then you would with another type- or with an actual cabbage.

Komatsuna on the other hand is a more vertical grower- it’s often referred to as Japanese spinach. It’s not a spinach of course, it’s a Brassica rapa just like Bok Choy. But because of its more spinach like growing habit, it can be jammed closer together.

As for Shungiku- I actually don’t know! Shungiku is actually a type of edible chrysanthemum green and as I’ve never grown mums or any type of chrysanthemum flower… I’m just going to wing it.

“I’m just going to wing it” is probably my mother’s least favorite phrase to come out of my mouth, but in the vegetable garden at least winging it can work out fine.

Less so with childhood baking experiments sorry mom.

So everything was well placed and well watered- and then it was time to mulch.

My favorite time.

Not only did I mulch, as you can see I re-spread out my survivor of a Yerba Buena plant.

It hasn’t given up on me, so I’m not giving up on it.

As this bed is rather brassica heavy, there’s one more step to be done, but that’s another post.

Coming soon to a garden near you: beneficial nematodes!

Because fuck cabbage moths that’s why!

A new green enters the story. Spoiler alert! It’s a Brassica.

Cupid’s arrow struck me with a deep abiding love of brassicas a long time ago, and my affection has never dimmed.

From my childhood obsession with broccoli to my modern love of komatsuna, both oleracea and rapa are the loves of my life.

Which is why when a seldom eaten but much loved member of the species Brassica rapa enters my local garden center- I go wild.

This lovely specimen came in on a Sunday. She was sultry and lush and by the way she walked into the store I knew she’d be trouble.

This- is Koji. Also known as Tatsoi also known as Yukina savoy. She’s a woman of many aliases.

It’s basically a sort of Brassica you harvest as spinach or Swiss chard. Tasty and easy. 

She is trouble though- those lovely crinkled leaves can hide bugs if you’re not careful. I anticipate many inspections of her undercarriage unless I want those grey cabbage aphids.

Annoyingly when I took this beauty on the bus home I lost her nametag, so I have no close up on the tag like I like to give you. Dames like her always like to be anonymous.

Doesn’t matter- I know how to treat a brassica right.

Those six pretty little plants are right at home in the front part of my new bed, and I’ll stop the hard-boiled detective cliches now.

I’m actually pretty excited about this one, as I’ve eaten it sporadically but never grown it.

Ah Brassica rapa- you never disappoint.

Bok Choy, Pac Choi, Brassica rapa, it’s all Latin to me.

Or in the case of the first two names, Cantonese.

It’s my 100th post! So since I harvested my first Bok Choy of the year, I thought I’d do a deep dive into one of my favorite cabbages!

Bok Choy, also know as Pac Choi, which is how my garden center spells it- is a member of the cabbage family of plants. Specifically, Bok Choy is Brassica rapa. Now the really really cool thing about cabbages is that we’ve been breeding them for so long that even members of the same species of cabbage can have wildly different forms based on the specific cultivar or variety.

Bok Choy, is one of two cabbages sometimes referred to as “Chinese Cabbage” the other of course being napa cabbage. Both are members of the same species, but if you’ve ever put a napa cabbage and a bok choy together, you’ve probably noticed they look quite different.

Here’s where it gets crazier. The “rapa” in the scientific name is Latin for turnip.

That’s right! The turnip is also Brassica rapa! in other words, the Bok Choy I’m growing in one part of my garden, and the turnips I’m growing in another, are the same species of plant!

Bok Choy and Pac Choi are just different ways of transliterating the Cantonese word for the plant into English, traditionally the first is American English while the second is British English. Which raises a few questions as to why a plant nursery in California is using the British transliteration? Who knows.

Even varieties within a specific cultivar can look and grow quite different. This is the Rosy cultivar I’ve been growing along with the green and white type, which is called “Joi Choi”. The Joi Choi is growing really well and big, while the purple type is… growing. As you can see in the picture, the interior is flowering, which makes no sense- that’s usually something that gets triggered by heat, and it’s January. Now the flowering part is most likely totally edible, that’s what Cauliflower and Broccoli are after all, a cabbage that was bred for it’s edible flowers. (That however is Brassica oleracea, the species that includes cabbages proper, kale, Brussels sprouts and the aforementioned cauliflower and broccoli). So even if it is growing weirdly- I’ll still eat it.

I’m hoping that as I harvest the Joi Choi, the added space will cause the Rosy cultivar to grow a bit better. Or it might not, and I’ll just harvest all the purple ones all together for baby bok choy. Either way, I win. Such is the way of cabbages.

Bok Choy is like a lot of cabbage species and cultivars in that it needs a good wash. It’s not as bad as something like a leek, or god forbid, artichokes- which will never grace my garden kill them with fire they are bug hotels. But you still need to cut off the root end and give everything a good rinse. Depending on how you’re cooking them (or if you plan to eat them raw) you might not even use a salad spinner or towels to dry them off. I don’t.

General cooking advice is to cook them like chard or kale, separate the leaves from the stems, cut both up, saute the stems first in a little oil and salt, and once those are starting to soften, throw in the leaves and finish it up with a good grind of pepper. Bok Choy are also good in stir fry, just add the stems first and the leaves at the end along side whatever other veggies and proteins are in your fry.

This bad boy was actually destined for some braised steaks, added into the braising liquid along with some carrots and onions, steaks nestled inside, and slow cooked in the oven for two hours. It was delicious.

Now I use starts to save time, but much as growing turnips from seed is super easy peasy, so is growing bok choy. Brassica rapa is just one of the easier vegetables to grow, and I’ve done it year round. They might not love the hottest of summers, but as long as you grow them in the shade they should be fine. Similarly, while there is not a real danger of frost out here, in places where it does snow, you can grow Bok Choy easily in cold frames. Like most cabbages, they’re resilient and easy to grow, a testament to the fact that they are the modern descendants of one of the first vegetable species domesticated by humans.

One caveat. Like all cabbages they will attract some bugs. One of the reasons I prefer raised beds and growing my cabbages in the colder months is because of a nasty but pretty little white moth called a cabbage moth or cabbage butterfly. Two species of this winged foe exist, Pieris brassicae and Pieris rapae. The fact that their species name translates into cabbage and turnip respectively should tell you everything about their preferred food. But they’re not the only ones. The last time I grew turnips in the ground instead of in a raised bed, I lost 90 percent of my crop to an unknown grub, that I only discovered while cutting into my turnips. (EW.) But the various grubs and the cabbage moths are much more active in the summer. What is active this time of year is slugs and snails, especially after all this rain. That’s most likely the culprit behind the few scattered holes on the bok choy. I put down the slug bait, but honestly? A few holes in your cabbages won’t spoil your dinner. (Grubs in your turnips on the other hand…)

So give growing Bok Choy (or Pac Choi) a try! It’s easier than you think, and the rewards are delicious.

I can’t believe I’ve managed to crank out 100 posts in less than a year. I still feel slightly like I’m shouting into the void, but it’s a nice hobby, and I hope I’m brightening someone’s day. Thanks to everyone who reads this- here’s to my garden, and yours!