With the second half of summer well underway it’s tempting to let the kitchen garden coast towards the lengthening shadows of autumn. With so much coming off the productive plot it is hard to imagine things slowing down, but slow down they will. Unless, that is, you take advantage of the many vegetables that can still be sown at this time of year. These second-wind crops follow seamlessly on from recently excavated vegetables to give a harvest either before the end of the growing season or, with a little shelter from the elements, right through the autumn and on into winter.
One family of vegetables that can be started off from now is the Oriental leaves. While for many crops it’s a matter of ‘squeezing them in’ in what remains of the growing season, these quick-growing and hardy leaves positively thrive from late summer in a way that’s simply not possible earlier on in the year.
Oriental leaves include the likes of pak choi, mizuna and the mustards. I’ve long been a fan of these spicy fellows; their piquant notes and colourful, textured leaves are real charmers on the plot and dinner plate. Cut into the finest ribbons with the sharpest knife they’ll pep up any salad, while their thick midribs give a satisfying crunch if shown the wok for the briefest of moments.
The Perfect Autumn Crop
There are compelling reasons for sowing these Eastern delights as the nights begin to draw in. Oriental leaves put on leafy growth in response to shortening day length, which means none of the bolting – or running to seed – problems that so frustrate attempts to grow them in spring. I could never work out why my diligently sown rows of stir-fry leaves almost immediately stretched to flower. Having switched my sowing dates to late summer I can carry on cutting leaves through the winter before they eventually rise up to seed in spring. In this way I’ll achieve a steady six months’ of leaves, rather than having to fine-time the fleeting two to three-week harvest window of early summer.
Growing these lush leaves as the weather cools off also means there’s far less in the way of pests to intimidate. Along with the usual slugs, the flea beetle is the biggest antagonist. Though by no means disastrous, these tiny pinging insects will nibble literally hundreds of equally tiny holes into the leaves, rendering them tough and certainly lacking in the looks department. After midsummer flea beetle activity settles down, giving cleaner cuts of leaves befitting of any self-respecting dinner table.
So let’s meet some of the family members that make up the Oriental leaves. Here are some of my personal favourites (there are plenty more!)
- Mizuna: Their feathery leaves give no hint of the pleasingly peppery tang to come. Cut individual leaves from the outside of the plants as they reach maturity, or lift complete plants.
- Mustards: Available in all manner of shapes, sizes and colours, mustards are the most varied of the Oriental leaves. Look out for the exceptionally hardy ‘Green in the Snow’ or for a milder, almost sweet-tasting alternative plumb for impressively frilly twins of ‘Golden Streaks’ or ‘Ruby Streaks’. When harvesting, cut horizontally right across the plants to leave the smallest leaves at the centre of the plant to grow on for the next cut.
- Pak Choi: This stir-fry staple has an irresistibly crunchy midrib and clean, refreshing taste. While it can cope with light frosts, it is best grown under some protection – a cold frame or unheated greenhouse would be ideal. I favour the hardier-than-average F1-hybrid variety ‘Joi Choi’.
- Tatsoi: Smaller leaves than pak choi but considerably more weather proof, holding its own in temperatures down to -10°C (14°F). The glossy leaves form a ground-hugging rosette that’s undisturbed by winter winds.
- Chinese Cabbage: If you can offer a moist, rich soil then the pale-leaved Chinese cabbage will thrive. Offer it a little protection when the weather begins to cool off and you could be enjoying hearty heads of tightly packed leaves in as little as 10 weeks. Enjoy a bonus crop by cleanly cutting the heads away to leave a stump in the ground; a secondary cut of smaller leafy shoots will follow within a few weeks.
All of these eastern delights are straightforward to grow and share similar cultural requirements. Don’t let slugs get the upper hand; if they are a particular nuisance on your plot then start seedlings off in modules before planting them out to give a bit of a head start. Allow plenty of space between plants – at least 20cm (8in) in each direction would be advisable and gives the slimy molluscs fewer opportunities to lurk in the undergrowth. Always pick off older, yellowing leaves and weed meticulously to ensure plenty of light and air around plants during this often wetter time of year. Regular harvesting will keep plants productive and healthy – and you stocked with handsome leaves.
By Benedict Vanheems.