There are a number of cool-season vegetables that perform better in the fall in Missouri rather than when planted in the spring. The sunny, warm days and cool nights associated with a typical Missouri fall provide ideal growing conditions for species native to areas where summers are less severe than those in the Midwest. Chinese cabbage is a good example of such a species and many gardeners around Missouri include it in their fall and winter garden.
Chinese cabbage is one of the oldest vegetables. Native to eastern Asia, archeological records indicate it has been cultivated for more than 6000 years in China. Pharmacologists of the Ming Dynasty studied Chinese cabbage for its medicinal qualities after which its popularity in China became more widespread. Later it was introduced into Korea where it becamethe primary vegetable for making the Korean dish kimchi. Early in the 20th century it was taken to Japan by soldiers returning from China during the Russian-Japanese War. The Celts arecredited with introducing the vegetable to the British Isles, but it was not untilthe late 1800s that it became popular in Europe. It has been fairly popular in the United States since the early 1900s.
The common name “Chinese cabbage” is somewhat generic and refers to several sub-species of Brassica campestris, a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) to which cabbage, mustard, broccoli, kohlrabi and turnips belong.
The Chinensis group (sometimes called Brassica chinensis) is the first sub-species and most often goes by the name bok choy or pak choi. Other names include celery cabbage, Chinese celery and Chinese mustard cabbage. Bok choy is non-heading and contains several thick white petioles and glossy, smooth leaves. Its round leaf blades form in a cluster much like those of celery.
The Pekinensis group is the second sub-species of Brassica campestris, and sometimes carries the Latin name of B. pekinensis. Common names include pe-tsai, celery cabbage, Chinese white cabbage, Peking cabbage and napa. Most pe-tsai types have broad leaves that form compact heads. Chihili types form cylindrical heads 18 inches long and up to 6 inches in diameter; Che-foo types form compact, round heads from green leaves with white petioles.
Chinese cabbage is a cool season vegetable that grows best under shortdays and day temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees F. Temperatures above 75 degrees F tend to cause bitterness and soft heads. The tendency for springsown Chinese cabbage to form seed or “bolt” is associated more with longer days late spring/early summer rather than warm temperatures. Highest quality Chinese cabbage probably results when it is planted in mid to late summer for the fall garden.
Soil considerations (fertility, pH, preparation, etc.) for Chinese cabbage are much the same as for regular cabbage. Soil with good structure, fertility and water-holding capacity is desirable. The ideal soil pH for Chinese cabbage is in the 6.0 to 6.2 range.
Chinese cabbage may be sown directly in the garden in late summer. Sow seeds several inches apart and cover about 1/4 inch deep in rows located between 18 and 36 inches apart, depending upon the type sown. Water thoroughly until good seedling establishment occurs. After seedlings emerge, thin to 8-12 inches apart within rows. Soil should be kept moist during the life of the crop for optimum results.
Nitrogen is an important nutrient for all crops and the timing of nitrogen application is important for Chinese cabbage. If a pre-plant application of fertilizer has been made sidedressing with nitrogen following thinning and at 10-day intervals thereafter is recommended. However, excessive application of nitrogen leads to lush vegetative growth more prone to disease attack.
A number of diseases and insects that plague the cabbage family also affect Chinese cabbage. Problematic diseases include turnip mosaic and turnip yellow mosaic virus, down and powdery mildew, bacterial soft rots, Alternaria leaf spot, blackleg and white rot. Disease severity is highly dependent on environmental conditions.
Troublesome insects that feed on Chinese cabbage include cabbage looper, diamond-back moth larvae, corn earworm, beet armyworm, aphids, vegetable weevil, and flea beetles.
Certain types of Chinese cabbage can be used as early as 30 days after sowing but it takes about 50-60 days for the heading (Pekinensis) types to mature. Harvest the latter by cutting the entire plant just above the soil line. For the Chinensis group, cut the outer stalks (leaves and petioles) as they mature but still are young and tender. Allow three to four leaves to remain on the plant for future harvest. Chinese cabbage keeps several weeks in the refrigerator.
The flavor of Chinese cabbage is considered by most to be milder than that of regular cabbage and all types may be used either fresh or cooked. Even though it sometimes is called celery cabbage, the stalks of the Chinensis group are not fibrous. They are tender, and particularly good when cooked lightly in a stir-fry. While tender, the stalks can be shredded and added to cole slaw with other types of cabbage. Heading types often are used like regular cabbage for cole slaw or as a substitute for lettuce in wilted salads.
REVISED: August 1, 2012