Those who are looking to garden sustainably and grow their own food year-round will often be looking to expand the range of crops that they grow. Growing Asian greens in your polytunnel is a great way to increase your range of edible vegetables and diversify your repertoire. A number of green vegetables that originate in Asia and which form an important part of Asian cuisines can also grow well right here in the UK. In this article we will explore some of the many green, leafy vegetables that you could consider.
Why Grow Asian Greens?
Before we go on to consider some of the different options, it is worthwhile taking a quick look at why we should grow Asian greens in this country. The reasons why growing them is a good idea include:
- Such greens are often easier (or as easy to grow) as more familiar lettuce and leafy brassica crops.
- They are often hardy, and can be grown over winter, or to provide food for the hungry gap.
- They can sometimes be more resilient to pests and diseases than some lettuces and other crops.
- They can enliven your diet and open up your home-grown menu with a wide range of new recipe ideas.
Pak Choi / Bok Choy Asian Greens (Brassica chinensis)
Pak choi,or bok choi is a family of crops that make up many of the choices we could consider for Asian greens. Many members of this family will do extremely well in a polytunnel, or elsewhere in a UK garden. There are many different cultivars to choose from, many of which are highly decorative and attractive as well as tasting good.
Pak choi must be kept relatively cool and moist or the leaves will lack flavour and plants may bolt and will be more prone to disease. Mulch, provide shade and water well, especially during warmer periods. Bolt resistant varieties are available but most pak choi are best sown before or after the hottest part of the year, either just after the last frost date in your area or later in August for a late-season crop. Bolt resistant varieties can be sown any time between April and August.
Choy Sum (Brassica chinensis var. parachinensis)
One type of pak choi that you could consider growing in your polytunnel or elsewhere in your garden is choy sum, also known as Chinese flowering cabbage. This popular Chinese leafy green is common in the cuisine of that country. It is characterised by its distinct yellow flowers. There are purple as well as green variants of this vegetable.
Gai Lan (Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra)
A similar vegetable is gai lan. This is another leafy green which should be harvested and consumed before the yellow flowers bloom, as stems can become tough and woody when plants bolt. It is also known as Chinese broccoli, and forms similar heads to more familiar broccoli, though much smaller. Its flavour is similar to broccoli but slightly more bitter.
Gai Choy (Brassica juncea)
Gai choy is another leafy green often used in Chinese cuisine. It is sometimes called Chinese mustard. It resembles a headless cabbage such as kale, but as a distinct mustard-like or horseradish flavour. Some cultivars are used mainly for their greens, while others are grown for their seeds, which is used in oilseed production.
Ong Choi (Ipomoea aquatica)
Also known as Chinese water spinach, swamp cabbage, or kangkung, this plant can be grown in containers in bright, sunny gardens here in the UK if given enough water. A polytunnel can make it easier to grow this plant outside the tropics. It is widely grown in East, South and South Eastern Asia and is an important element in many Asian cuisines. It is similar to watercress in flavour.
Napa Cabbage Asian Greens (Brassica Pekinensis)
Chinese cabbage, as it is sometimes known, is another member of the Brassica family, and also grows well in medium heavy soils with reasonable water and nutrient retention. These cabbages can also be grown in the UK and different varieties can be sown and harvested almost all year round. It can be sown successionally, for cut and come again crop or as mature,hearted heads.
Mizuna (Brassica rapa var. niposinica)
Asian greens such as mizuna and mibuna are the perfect additions for your polytunnel, ideal for using raw or cooked salads and stir fries,or other recipes. Mizuna, the first of these Japanese greens, has cut and come again leaves with a distinctive peppery, cabbage flavour. It is also known as spider mustard, kyona or Japanese mustard greens and has dark green,serrated leaves.
Mibuna (Brassica rapa var. Japonica)
Mibuna has a spear-shaped, slender leaf. It is not as vigorous as mizuna but it has a more interesting and slightly stronger flavour. Like mizuna, mibuna can offer good value as a cut and come again crop and can be planted on a regular succession for a year-round supply. Winter crops may need a little extra protection from the cold in more northerly reaches of the UK but should be a valuable green food source when few other plants will be available.
Amaranth Asian Greens (Amaranthus)
Amaranth, sometimes grown for its seed, can also be a source of greens, which are widely used in some parts of Asia. If you want a leafy green that also offers seeds that can be used as a grain then amaranth could be a good value choice. Sown in the spring, you can harvest leaves from the plant over time while waiting for the seed heads to form. If you are more interested in the leaves than the seed then you may wish to choose a variety that is slower to go to seed,as some varieties are chosen specifically for speedy seed production.
Nan Ling (Chinese Celery)(Apium gravolens var. secalinum)
Leaf celery, also known as Nan Ling celery or Chinese celery, is widely cultivated in Asian countries for its flavoursome edible stalks and leaves. The stems are thinner than those of Western celery and curved into round, hollow stalks, though the flavour is somewhat similar. This plant is suited to cooler climates and so, while it is not as common here as in China and other Asian countries, it can be a good choice for UK gardens. This plant can be used in many dishes but is particularly good in stir fries.
Shungiku (Glebionis coronaria)
This species of flowering plant in the daisy family is widely cultivated and naturalised in East Asia and can also be grown here in the UK. It is used as a leaf vegetable and is especially known for its use in chopsuey. It can be boiled like spinach or fried in oil with garlic and other ingredients. Make successional sowings from April onwards and keep well-watered in dry spells. Leave the odd plant to grow to flowering and this will also add a splash of colour to your vegetable garden.
These are some of the leafy greens from Asian cuisine that you could consider growing in your polytunnel or somewhere else in your garden. As you can see from the above, many of these plants are excellent for use in stir fries and other Asian recipes. To enhance these recipes you could also grow other complementary ingredients that go well with your Asian greens in a range of dishes. For example, you could grow:
- pea shoots
- other Asian herbs and spices.
Do you grow Asian greens in your polytunnel? Feel free to share your cultivation tips and/or your favourite Asian recipes in the comments section below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.