Is your garden plan done? Are your seeds purchased? I know very well that we are still in the middle of winter (at least in Quebec!) But the beginnings of garden season are upon us! If you are planting indoors, it will soon be time to get into action. If you ever lack inspiration or have a little space left to fill in your vegetable garden, today I am finishing my miniseries of winter suggestions. Once again, I present to you a vegetable that I love, both in the garden and in the kitchen (obviously!)
Choosing this ultimate vegetable was not easy. I have compiled a good list of ideas over the years, all as relevant as the other. But don’t worry, I’ll find a way to present them to you in future columns. I chose this vegetable because it was a discovery for many at the urban farm, but also because some who knew it did not know that it was possible to grow it here. It is a vegetable from the brassica family, like my last two suggestions, kohlrabi and turnip. It comes in a multitude of varieties, you can try several! I present to you today the bok choy.
Versatile Asian greens
Bok choy is one of a group of vegetable plants that are often referred to as “Asian greens”. There are also the tatsoi and the gai lan, for example. What I love about these greens is their firm, crunchy texture. They can be harvested at any stage of growth, as long as it is before they go to seed. They are eaten as mini-vegetables or as full-grown ones. Simply cut at the base.
Much like turnips, I have always grown bok choy as a spring and fall vegetable. During the heat of summer, it tends to go to seed quicker. You will probably see on the seed packets that it is possible to do direct sowing, that is to say to put the seed directly in the vegetable patch. For my part, I like to prepare transplants indoors, about 30 days before planting. I transplant at the end of April and mid-May, then at the end of July and the beginning of August. Don’t forget to fertilize when planting. I space the transplants 30 cm on the row and plan a space of 20 cm between the rows. Be aware that these dimensions may vary depending on the Asian green you have chosen.
If you are limited in space, Asian greens are great to grow before a warm weather crop or after harvesting an entire plant. They grow well in containers because they have superficial rooting.
Bok choys and cold
A few years ago, we were responsible for maintaining the front vegetable garden of the National Assembly, in Quebec. We had transplanted bok choy very late and tested their “cold hardiness”. I don’t have any scientific data to support my point, but I remember that they survived several small freezes (-1 to -3 degrees Celsius, say). We would arrive in the morning and their foliage was all sagged and frozen. However, after a few hours in the sun, they regained their vigor as if nothing had happened.
This “superpower” is held by an impressive number of vegetable plants, there are even several levels of resistance. If you are interested, I invite you to look into the question, another fascinating subject to explore and experiment!
Here’s a quick look at how it works. These plants accumulate an “antifreeze” protein that allows them to lower the freezing point inside their cells. They manage to move most of the water from their cells to the outer edges, to freeze only partially (this is what gives them their withered appearance in freezing weather). Finally, they can change the composition of the fats that make up the membrane of their cells. This is to make the latter more flexible and therefore less likely to burst if ice crystals were to form in the cell. Impressive, isn’t it? Some also say that this mechanism makes it possible to concentrate the sugars in the plant and that this would improve their taste quality. Why not try it?
Watch out for bugs
Asian greens should be covered with netting upon sowing or transplanting. Flea beetles love this type of foliage, they will be able to turn it into lace in no time! Believe me, I learned that the hard way last season. We inadvertently failed to cover bok choy after planting. As a result, I never saw the deployment of these greens, they disappeared! As with turnips, it is preferable to practice crop rotation to reduce the pressure that may be caused by flea beetles. If you ever find a few holes in the leaves, know that the vegetable remains quite edible.
In the kitchen
No matter which variety you choose, they are all very versatile in the kitchen. In the summer, I like to grill them directly on the BBQ. They can be finely cut to enhance a vegetable stir-fry or be steamed, whole. In winter, I like to cut them into large chunks to let them simmer in a meal soup. You will definitely recognize the subtle cabbage taste with a slight bitterness, but they are generally much fresher and full of water. I’ve never tried them raw in a salad, but why not?
May the 2023 season be filled with other great vegetable discoveries!
Amused by your comment “find a few holes in the leaves…vegetable remains quite edible.” I grew up in the country in the 40s when pesticides were either few or too expensive for those of us in the lower economic group. I laughingly say I was 15 years old before I knew that cabbage leaves weren’t supposed to have holes.”