There was a time when growing Asian vegetables amounted to sowing a few Daikon radishes and cultivating some yard-long beans, and then as novelties.
But in recent decades, as gardeners — and seed catalogues — have discovered the richness of vegetable varieties from other lands and cultures, the world of East Asian edibles in particular has opened up to the broader gardening world.
Using unusual varieties gets to one of the key aspects of growing your own food: You discover new varieties that are either unavailable at the store or will lack the freshness of the homegrown article, even at the farmers markets.
The experience of tasting a Chinese radish that is sweet, not fiery, or a cabbage with the raw flavor of lettuce awaits the home gardener looking to the east.
Kitazawa Seed Co., based in Oakland, Calif., was established 102 years ago to supply varieties for Japanese American communities and later expanded to include seed from China, Korea and other East Asian countries. Its offerings are now widely grown by everyone, said Maya Shiroyama, company president. One reason the inventory is so rich, she said, is that Japanese heirloom varieties have been developed as regional favorites over centuries, such as the Kamo eggplant, a Kyoto specialty, or Hidabeni, a turnip from central Japan.
Another reason? In a country where meat was a rare luxury, the vegetables had to be good.
Given too that our growing seasons seem longer, hotter and more volatile — last year’s unending monsoon, for example — Asian vegetables may be more reliable than traditional European-borne staples.
“They were wanting to be discovered,” said Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, based in Mansfield, Mo. The company catalogue features more Asian vegetables each year, some sourced from Gettle’s own travels to China and Japan.
New for 2019 are a winged bean from Japan, a light green noodle bean from China and a Japanese mini-watermelon named Beni Kodoma. Look for many more Asian selections to grow in the years ahead.
“Asian vegetables are definitely the most important new trend in the catalogue,” he said. Of Baker Creek’s top 10 new bestsellers, eight are from China or Japan, he said.
“Asian food is now such a big part of our diet that the obvious next step is to bring that into our gardens as more unique varieties come out,” Gettle said.
From a gardener’s perspective, there is an additional allure. Plants from much of China and Japan grow in climates similar to the Mid-Atlantic, South and the lower Midwest — that is, hot and humid summers followed by long, mild autumns.
Those elongated falls are perfect for planting cool-season Asian varieties such as mustard greens, mizunas, cabbages, radishes and turnips. They will grow happily until Thanksgiving and beyond, especially with some row cover protection. The spring window for these cool-season varieties is closing, but now is a great time to order seed and plan for the third growing season of the year. In our region, most are best directly sown in the garden between August and mid-September.
As for a summer harvest, there’s still time to sow a range of warm-season varieties that will develop rapidly as the days grow long and toasty.
Here are some varieties worth getting to know.
Asian cucumbers tend to be more slender and much sweeter than Western types, and Suyo or Sooyow varieties are long with tapered ends. Baker Creek sells Aonaga Jibai, a small-fruited variety from southern Japan described as exceptionally sweet. Yamato Extra Long is a two-footer with pest and disease resistance. Another offering from Japan is Shimoshirazu — short, stout, disease-resistant, and particularly suited to high temperatures and humidity, according to the catalogue.
Kitazawa lists more than a dozen varieties, including two heat-tolerant Japanese hybrids, Progress and Soarer. Sooyow Nishiki is a thin-skinned heirloom described as sweet and very crisp. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, of Winslow, Maine, sells a white-skinned variety named Itachi.
Japanese kabocha winter squashes tend to be small and fruitful, sweet-fleshed and attractive, and perfectly sized for small households.
Red Kuri, also called Hokkaido, produces pear-shaped fruit with a bright orange-red rind. Blue Kuri is smaller, with three-pound fruits, rounder and with similar sweet golden-yellow flesh. Kitazawa describes its Akehime variety, a one-pound mini-kabocha, as having a flavor between sweet potato and pumpkin. Johnny’s sells a hybrid mini-kabocha named Shokichi, available in green and light gray versions. Baker Creek offers a Japanese heirloom named Yokohama, which is green, ribbed and warty, with orange flesh. Its Kogigu has a nutty flavor and keeps longer than other Japanese squashes.
The bitter melon is a warty-looking gourd, and even when harvested young and green, the flavor is an acquired taste for most Western palates. It has been long valued in Asian cultures for its nutritional and medicinal qualities — it is said to regulate blood sugar — and as these benefits are becoming known, Western gardeners are growing it. The vines are vigorous and dense and need solid support.
Baker Creek offers five varieties, including a white-skinned version; Kitazawa has nine varieties.
Other gourds are part of the Asian garden repertory, including the loofah, whose fruits are edible when immature. The strangest may be the snake bean, a gourd that can grow several feet long and resembles a serpent. Eaten at a smaller stage, the flavor is a cross between a green pepper and a green bean, said Baker Creek’s Shannon McCabe. Kitazawa sells a shorter variety named Buag Ngu.
The obvious choice is the soybean known as edamame, of which there are a couple of considerations. It takes a relatively long time to yield, and you need to plant quite a few to get a generous harvest, in my experience. But Nancy Olney, the vegetable gardener at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia, says she has had heavy fruiting and compact growth from a variety named Chiba Green. “And a great flavor,” she says. It’s found in the Baker Creek catalogue. Kitazawa lists 10 varieties, of which Midori Giant is the traditional type suited to hot-climate regions.
The yard-long bean, sometimes called the asparagus bean, produces lush, vigorous vines and, in late summer, 18-inch, pencil-thin beans of sweet, nutty flavor. They love long, hot summers. Purple-podded varieties are particularly handsome. Green-podded Gita is offered by Johnny’s.
Bok choy is one of the easiest of all brassicas to grow, and the number of varieties has increased substantially over the past 20 years. Much of this expanding choice is driven by the value of this crop to growers for farmers markets and restaurants. Bok choy divide into white- and green-stemmed types and come in a range of sizes, including dwarf varieties such as Toy Choi. Purple-leafed varieties tend to have thinner stems. You can grow them to full size or cut the leaves at baby stage to add to autumn salads. Rosie (from Johnny’s) is a particularly pretty one.
Bok choy is not as hardy as it looks — a hard frost will kill it — but it is a little more heat-tolerant than other greens. Its value is in its rapid growth; you can start harvesting five weeks after germination. I sow in mid-August and will get a month-long harvest before it freezes.
Chinese or napa cabbages are also quick to mature and just seem a lot more willing than European varieties. I grow them from winter-started transplants in early spring, harvesting into June, and then directly sow them in late August for the fall. Tokyo Bekana (from Johnny’s) is an open-headed cabbage with pretty and mild-flavored lime green leaves. Olney commends Tenderheart, with a tight head that keeps earwigs out.
Mustard greens have an agreeable peppery bite, grow quickly from seed and are made for the late-season garden. They keep on after frosts. The purple-leafed varieties such as Red Giant and Garnet Giant add color to the vegetable garden and can be harvested at baby leaf stage a month after sowing and then at maturity as collard-sized greens.
Mizunas are available in green and red versions and have lacelike leaves. Tatsoi grows as rosettes with spoon-shaped leaves on upright stalks. When small, the leaves can be used in salad mixes. Larger plants can be stir-fried.
Turnips are best grown in the fall, when the soil is warm but the nights are getting cooler. When young, the roots are used much like radishes, sweet enough to be eaten raw, grated or chopped. The leaves can be stir-fried or added to soups, and Kitazawa’s broad array of Japanese turnips includes Nozawana, grown for its leafy greens. If you’re looking for a pure white turnip, Baker Creek sells Tokinashi, and Kitazawa and Johnny’s have Hakurei.
Radishes are related to turnips; both excel as fall crops but need even soil moisture to do well. Kitazawa lists almost 50 varieties. Daikons grow large, so keep an eye on them if you want to harvest them small. Gettle sells sweet-fleshed radishes from China that are grown (and pickled) as if they were fruit. Chinese Red Meat has green skin and fuchsia-red flesh. Shawo Fruit Radish is lime green.
Asian carrot varieties tend to be slender, tapered and multicolored, and you can find varieties that are purple, red, white and yellow. I don’t know whether they are any sweeter than a Western variety, but they look choice and appetizing on the plate.
Many East Asian edibles originated on other continents — peppers and tomatoes, for example — but have been given their own gloss by successive generations of growers. If you are a fan of okra, Jing Orange is an Asian variety (from Baker Creek) with pinky-red pods. Olney describes it as prolific, pretty and flavorful, which is about all you need in a vegetable. Originating in Africa and iconic in the South, this Asian version symbolizes the rich global cornucopia now awaiting the home gardener.
Once tomato transplants are established, mulch beds with a generous two-inch layer of straw to keep weeds at bay, retain soil moisture and help prevent soil-borne diseases from spreading to the lower leaves. Pinch out suckers in leaf axils to promote neat, upright growth.
— Adrian Higgins