The heat of July makes it difficult to realize that fall gardening activities are not too far away. The sunny, warm days and cool nights associated with a typical Missouri fall provide ideal growing conditions for cool-season vegetables native to areas where summers are less severe than those in the Midwest. Chinese cabbage is a good example of a vegetable that many gardeners find performs better in the fall in Missouri rather than when planted in the spring.
The word “cabbage” is an Anglicized form of caboche. The latter is an Old French word which, literally interpreted, means “head”. However, the term is often used for other plants with similar growth characteristics such as skunk cabbage, cabbage rose and Chinese cabbage.
As a food source, Chinese cabbage is one of our oldest vegetables. Native to eastern Asia, archeological records indicate it has been cultivated for over 6000 years. The common name “Chinese cabbage” is somewhat generic and refers to several sub-species of Brassica campestris, a member of the mustard plant family (Brassicaceae) to which cabbage, mustard, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi and turnip belong.
Chinese cabbage is quite tolerant of cold temperatures but does not adapt to heat very well. When it develops primarily in hot weather, it is quick to form a flower stalk (bolt), oppose to forming a head. Therefore, planting this crop in the spring often results in disappointment when temperatures warm prematurely.
Seeds of Chinese cabbage sown now will make early growth during hot weather, but will not reach a size large enough to flower. After the cool temperatures of fall arrive and, as plants become larger, they will no longer be able to flower because of the cool weather and will form heads instead.
Sow Chinese cabbage seeds in flats or pots in a soilless germination medium. Place the containers in a protected location where they will get morning sun followed by afternoon shade. Seeds also may be sown directly in the garden in the location they are to grow, to avoid the need to transplant. However, seeds sown directly in the garden are subject to crusting of the soil from overhead irrigation or pelting rains. This usually leads to poor germination. If possible, seeds sown directly in the garden should receive a light watering on a daily basis. This will help to keep the soil moist and cool, thus improving germination.
Plant vigor is important in the race against cold weather. Most Chinese cabbage varieties require about three to four weeks to produce plants large enough to transplant into the garden, and an additional 65 to 70 days until they are ready to harvest. Mature heads can endure light frosts in fall, but will be damaged by a severe freeze.
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.
Nitrogen is an important nutrient for Chinese cabbage and timing its application is important. If a pre-plant application of fertilizer has been made, sidedressing with nitrogen at 10-day intervals after transplanting (or thinning) is recommended. However, excessive application of nitrogen leads to lush vegetative growth more prone to disease attack.
Chinese cabbage has been greatly improved in recent years, resulting in a number of new varieties. An excellent variety among the taller-headed (Michihli) types is ‘Jade Pagoda’. It is relatively heat tolerant and produces firm, cylindrical heads 16 inches long and about six inches in width. ‘Green Rocket’ is another good variety with long heads, crisp leaves and good storage life.
‘Blues’ and ‘China Gold’ are two relatively-new, barrel-shaped Napa types of Chinese cabbage. Both are early in maturity which makes them good choices for fall planting. Additionally, both are slow to bolt, form firm heads, and have good external and internal color and quality.
Another Asian vegetable that can be started now for the fall is Pak Choi or “Chinese celery cabbage”. A member of the mustard family, this vegetable is grown for its white stems (petioles) that somewhat resemble celery. Most Pak Choi varieties require about 50 days to mature from the time plants are placed in the garden until harvest. Because it grows rapidly, Pak Choi can be started later in the fall than Chinese cabbage. ‘Asian Delight’ and ‘Bopak’ are two new varieties that won the coveted All-American Selection award. Both form five-to-seven inch heads that have tender white stems and dark green, textured leaves.
Insect control on young Chinese cabbage or Pak Choi plants is important in late summer. Cabbage worms can quickly devour the young, tender plants if not controlled properly. Leaf damage at this early stage of growth also can slow growth. If excessive damage is done, young plants may not have time to recover and form heads before cold weather arrives.
Chinese cabbage is considered ready for harvest when it heads are firm and compact. It has a storage life of up to six weeks when placed in a plastic bag in the crisper compartment of a refrigerator.
REVISED: February 21, 2017