Unless the spring weather is poor, I often find that a spring sewing of Chinese Leaves, as they have become collectively known, can be disappointing. All my seeds come up and look brilliant for a week or two, only to grow tall, leggy stems and burst into flower. Sometimes the rot can be stopped with a brisk haircut, rocket and spinach beet both respond well, but for Chinese leaves there seems to be no way to stop their busy progression into flowering.
Sowing these seeds in the autumn, or planting plug plants, as land becomes available, can provide very satisfactory, not to mention almost instant, results.
If I decide to plant plugs, I will choose my supplier carefully. Plug plants are much more delicate than a packet of seeds. And take note of the varieties. I do find that plug plant merchants can be a bit cavalier about varieties. The rooftopvegplotter cannot afford to be vague on these points. Some cultivars just don't work high up exposed to all weathers and with only 150mm of soil for comfort.
Pak Choi and mizuna are both favourites of mine. They grow quickly and taste delicious. Mizuna grows well as a cut and come again crop for the autumn, augmenting salads or providing greens for stir fry. Pak Choi are, in my view, better than cabbage. They don't attract slugs and butterflies as much and they are in, up and harvested before a cabbage had even germinated. I haven't found them to be good as cut and come again, preferring to harvest them whole and cook them as a cabbage substitute.
When I order plug plants I try to find out when they will arrive and check the weather forecast and my social diary before ordering. For once the little darlings arrive, speed and efficiency will be of the essence. Unwrap the packaging immediately and give each plant a bit if water. (Don’t deluge them.) Then plant out into prepared soil AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE. It takes seconds to plant them out, so there is no excuse for dawdling. Sprinkle a few slug pellets in any slug hidey-holes nearby. I don't sprinkle the pellets around the new plants, that would act as a lure! I want the pellets to act as decoys, not red rags to tell bull slugs where they can feast on new plants. If I am sowing at the back of the season, I trim anything surrounding the nursery bed to ensure that it gets a good supply of sunlight. Sun angles start to drop sharply at the end of August.
Though you can start sowing Chinese leaves as soon after the summer solstice as you like, they can be sewn right through September, October and November. Some people even say that by adding a little heat and a grow light that they can continue to be sown in the evil cold months of December and January.
But whenever I plant, I find that by the end of September, it is safer to sow the seeds in trays, so that the seedlings can be moved into the growhouse as the weather worsens. Because these are cold weather crops they do not rely so much on the high levels of lights that summer vegetables prefer, they will continue to grow well over winter, and because they have slightly tougher leaves than lettuces they don’t sulk in cold weather. Most of them will, in fact survive, a light frost or snowfall.
I take no chances with Chinese leaves, preferring the tried and tested varieties. My top four varieties are:
- Pak Choi; China – a mid-green leaf that grows to a good size. The shiny leaves of the Tatsoi and the Red Choi both look good, but I’ve had less success with the crop.
- Pak Choi; Baby Green – same colouring as China, but produces smaller rosettes, that can be sewn later in the season.
- Mizuna; Kyoto – vigorous and a good cropper.
- Mustard; Giant Red – not strictly speaking a Chinese leaf, but can be treated in just the same way. The pungent and deliciously coloured pinkish leaves give a hint of tanginess to autumn and winter salads.