Asian Greens for December: Pak Choy

Pak Choy in the hoophouse in December.
Photo Ethan Hirsh

December and the first three weeks of January are the season we harvest mature pak choy heads in our hoophouse. Pak choy, also known as bok choi, pac choy, and similar names, is a large 12″-15″ (30–38 cm) tall heading green, usually cut as a full head. If you prefer, you can harvest a leaf or two from each plant each time you want to eat some. It is hardy at least down to 32F (0C) outdoors. Some varieties are hardy down to 25F (-4C).

Botanically, pak choy is a Brassica rapa var. chinensis. If you plan to grow seed of more than one Asian green, carefully choose ones that won’t cross. Be aware of the possibility of brassica crops being wrongly classified.

Pak Choy in the hoophouse in early November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Pak Choy generally has thick rounded white stems, dark glossy leaves and a mild flavor. There are varieties with green stems, some with red-purple leaves such as Red Choi from Kitazawa, and some miniature varieties, such as Mei Qing Choi from Kitazawa, but we grow the full-sized white and green kinds, such as Joi Choi from Johnny’s and Prize Choy from Fedco. For the most choice, go to Kitazawa Seeds, as they stock 23 varieties (although 4 are tatois).

Like all Asian greens, pak choy is nutritious as well as tasty. It’s high in carotenoids, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, magnesium and fiber. It contains antioxidants which fight against cancer and protect eyes from macular degeneration.

Brassica seedbed protected from insects with ProtekNet and hoops.
Photo Bridget Alsehsire

We sow for this planting in an outdoor nursery seedbed on September 15, and cover the outdoor seedbeds with insect netting. The ideal germination temperature range for Pak Choy is 45-70F, it’s very easy-going. Ideal  temperatures for growth are 60-70F. Hoophouses are perfect. The plants grow fast and we only get a few weeds to deal with.Asian greens have similar care requirements to other brassicas, and very fertile soils grow the best Asian greens.

We transplant as bare root transplants into the hoophouse just 3 weeks after sowing, around Oct 3. We plant 10″ apart, with 4 rows in a 4ft wide bed. We reckon on 52 pak choy plants for 100 people. Because the harvest period is short, it is not wise to grow too many.

Young Pak Choy transplants.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Pak choy is shallow rooted, so pay extra attention to providing enough water during hot weather , 1” (2.5 cm) of water per week; 2” (5 cm) during very hot weather. This will prevent bitter flavors and excess pungency.

Do closely monitor for pests, which can cause havoc. We have had trouble in the hoophouse from the vegetable weevil larva. Click the link for information and great photos from Debbie Roos at Growing Small Farms. Other possible pests include flea beetles, aphids, harlequin bugs, cabbage caterpillars, grasshoppers and slugs.

Only about 8 weeks after transplanting, pak choy is ready to harvest. Because we want to keep all our hoophouse space in full use, we pull the plant out, then cut off the root. This is easier than cutting the head off at ground level, then trying to pry out the root.

Young Pak Choy plants in early November, with some darker Yukina Savoy on the right.
Photo Wren Vile

That same day we fill the gaps with some younger transplants (sown 10/10 in the hoophouse), that we have in reserve. We call these “filler greens.” We stop filling gaps with Asian greens (and lettuces) on Jan 25, and follow the pak choy with a sowing of kale to be transplanted outdoors in early March.

There’s a good publication from Iowa State Extension on  Commercial Production of Pak Choi. As an organic grower, I don’t use the herbicides and pesticides they mention, but the publication is good on identifying pests and diseases as well as covering the basic growing needs.

See ATTRA’s Cole Crops and Other Brassicas: Organic Production for more information than I can cover here.

In areas with cool or mild springs, pak choy can be a spring green, but that doesn’t work with our short springs – they just bolt rather than size up. Growing outdoors for fall harvest and in the hoophouse for winter use works best here in central Virginia.

Heritage Harvest Festival, Carolina Farm Stewardship Assoc Conference, Succession Planting Podcast

After a couple of summer months off from speaking at events, I am gearing up for the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, near Charlottesville. This two day festival has a day of ticketed workshops on Friday September 8 and a field day on Saturday September 9. Saturday workshops, demonstrations, tours and kids events are all included with the price of admission.

Never been to Monticello’s annual Heritage Harvest Festival? What exactly is it? Get your tickets now to join in 9/8-9/9. You’ll find a variety of interesting events and workshops focused on all things related to gardening, cooking and food. You can learn everything from how to make cider, how to keep your garden alive throughout the winter, or even how to become a chicken whisperer.  There is something for everyone! See the schedule of events here.

Sweet potato harvest
Photo Nina Gentle

This year I am presenting my workshop Growing Sweet Potatoes on Friday at 3.30 pm, followed by book-signing at the Bookshop at 4.45 pm. Bring your grubby well-thumbed old copy of Sustainable Market Farming for me to sign, or buy a fresh new one for yourself, or as a gift, at the Bookshop.

Come and participate in the 11th Annual Old Timey Seed Swap at Monticello’s Heritage
Harvest Festival  and learn more from Ira Wallace, one of the founders of HHF and worker/owner of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Seed savers of all levels are welcome! #HHF2017.

Seed Swap jars at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival
Photo courtesy of Monticello

Tour Monticello’s 1,000-foot-long vegetable garden: an “Ellis Island of edible curiosities” at this year’s Heritage Harvest Festival .

Peter Hatch giving a tour of the Monticello vegetable garden.
Photo courtesy of Monticello

Come and sample more than 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, heirloom peppers and melons in the Tasting Tent.

Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, at the Heritage Harvest Festival Tomato Tasting.
Photo courtesy of Monticello

My next event after that will be the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture Conference.  November 3-5, 2017 in Durham, NC. I will be talking about hoophouse growing, both in the Friday morning pre-conference and on Sunday. See my Events page (tab) for more.

Cucumbers and squash in our hoophouse.
Photo Nina Gentle

I’m doing fewer speaking events this fall/winter/spring season. I’m writing my second book, on year round vegetable production in hoophouses. I need to stay home and write, take photos, write some more, edit, draw diagrams, write more, make charts, etc.


In June, at the Vermont Mother Earth News Fair in Burlington, I took part in a podcast on Succession Planting. I thought I could embed it right here, but the closest I can manage today is this link: https://www.podbean.com/media/player/9s7a3-6cafa3?from=yiiadmin&vjs=1&skin=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=1&download=1&rtl=0

https://motherearthnewsandfriends.podbean.com/e/ep-13-succession-gardening/



Debbie Roos of Chatham County, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, steward of the very useful Growing Small Farms website, sent a heads up about a special feature of this week:

The week of August 6-12 has been declared National Farmers’ Market Week by the Farmers’ Market Coalition. It’s a great time to reflect on the importance of farmers’ markets to our communities and pledge to support our local markets, farmers, and vendors.

As demand for local food continues to grow, so too have the opportunities for America’s farmers to market fresh food directly to the consumer. The number of markets listed in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers’ Market Directory has grown from 2,863 in 2000 to 8,675 in 2016.
According to statistics recently released by the USDA, farmers’ markets and farm stands account for roughly $2 billion of the $3 billion that Americans spend annually on direct-to-consumer farm product sales. This revenue, in turn, supports the livelihoods of more than 165,000 mostly small and mid-sized farms and ranches.

Farmers’ markets strengthen rural economies. According to the Farmers’ Market Coalition, farmers selling locally create 13 full-time jobs per $1 million in revenue earned, compared to three jobs created by farmers who don’t sell locally. Farmers’ markets provide a low-barrier entry point for farmers and food entrepreneurs who are just starting out and/or want to test new products by getting feedback directly from customers.

Farmers’ markets support healthy communities by increasing access to fresh, nutritious, and flavorful food. Markets also provide important opportunities for social interactions and vendors help educate the non-farming public about agriculture and local foods.

So, support your local Farmers Market, unless you grow all your own food! You can probably find something to buy, or some way to offer help. Or buy a farmer a cup of tea!

Garlic harvest finished, fall crop planning, tomato bug heads-up

Hanging garlic in vertical netting. Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier
Hanging garlic in vertical netting.
Credit Marilyn Rayne Squier

Today we finished harvesting our garlic. It’s a good feeling to have it all safely hanging to cure in the barn. Our climate is humid so we use lots of box fans to help the drying process. We started harvesting our hardneck garlic about ten days ago, and worked on that (among other tasks) for 4 or 5 days. We were short of workers, so progress slowed, and the softneck garlic took us parts of 5 days too, although there is much less of it. We grew 2880 feet of hardneck and 1080 feet of softneck.. This year’s crop looks good, both in size and condition. In about three weeks, when the necks are dry, we’ll start trimming, sorting and storing.

In our enthusiasm, we decided to grow more softneck next year, 1520 feet, and a little more hardneck, 3200 feet. The latter is just because the crop rotation brings the garlic to the central garden next year, where the rows are 200 feet long, compared to 180 feet in our west garden.

This leads directly into my next topic: fall crop planning. We are past the peak of planting things now. In the row crop areas we have the summer-planted potatoes, three more sweet corn sowings, and several more rows of beans, squash and cucumbers to go. The area in permanent raised beds will still see quite a lot of changes, and yesterday afternoon, while it was 97F outside, several of us sat down indoors to plan the raised bed crops until the end of 2015.

In early spring, we plan where to put the crops beforel August 4th, then in mid-June we plan the rest of the year. Usually we review the June-August 4th plans too, in case we want to change those for a better idea. In preparation for the group planning session, I toured the raised bed area and updated the map to reflect reality. For instance, our first bean sowings were a failure (it was just too cold!), so I whited out all reference to those. This makes crop rotation easier, as we don’t worry about crops we didn’t actually grow! I also prepared a chart of crops we might grow, along with quantities and start and finish dates. I divided the list by crop family (rotation, rotation, rotation!). And I updated our quirky Colored Spots Plan (here’s a version from two years ago)

Twin Oaks Garden Colored Spots Plan for crop planning
Twin Oaks Garden Colored Spots Plan for crop planning

It’s a map of our raised beds, with a colored dot for each crop grown, and a vertical line for each Winter Solstice. It’s a visually easy way to check if any given bed has had, say, brassicas in the past few years. A lot of information in a small space.

We started with the carrot family, as we usually grow up to 10 beds of carrots in our 60 beds in any given year. This year our first three beds did very well, so then we skipped a couple of plantings. We have one new bed of carrots, sown in late May. We decided to skip the next two Carrots are only sown here in June and July if we really must – hot weather carrots just don’t taste that sweet. We agreed to do our usual big planting of fall carrots on August 4th, in the row crop plot where we’ve just dug the garlic from. Hopefully we can grow a round of buckwheat between now and then. We were persuaded by a carrot enthusiast to grow a bed of over-wintered carrots, which we haven’t done for a couple of years. it’s a bit risky, they could all freeze to death. But if they don’t die, they are so delicious!

Ruby chard. Photo Kathryn Simmons
Ruby chard.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Next we moved on to the brassicas. Nothing new here. We debated the pros and cons of turnips, and the pros won, so we’ll do two beds of turnips. We raised the question of kohlrabi – no-one keen. Beets and spinach next – we all love those. This group challenges our rotation, because we grow so much winter spinach, and spring and fall beets, and a bed of Swiss chard, all to be taken into account.

Alliums next. As I said, we decided on more softneck garlic. On to legumes. No cowpeas this year. No late successions of edamame. As usual, we’ll grow our last succession of green beans in our raised beds, where access is easiest, soil drains quickest, and we can keep an eye out for problems as the weather gets colder, and perhaps windier. We also plant our last successions of slicing cucumbers and summer squash and zucchini in the raised beds too, for the same reasons. It also lets us get the big row crop areas put into cover crops in a timely way.

A bed of young transplanted lettuce. Photo Wren Vile
A bed of young transplanted lettuce.
Photo Wren Vile

The planning task ends with finding homes for our last three beds of outdoor lettuce for the year. We plan these last because lettuce is such a quick turnaround crop, and only needs short-term openings of space between other crops. We transplant 120 lettuce roughly each week, fitting three plantings into each 90 ft long bed. After that we transplant into our greenhouse (until spring when we need the space and the compost they’re growing in, for our spring seedlings).

Lastly I want to mention a post I saw on Growing Small Farms by Debbie Roos in Chatham County, North Carolina. It’s about the tomato bug, a pest newly discovered there. It can do a lot of damage, so I, for one, will be keeping my eyes open for any sign of it arriving here in central Virginia. Click the link for lots of good photos and information about this pest. This website is a great source of information, and includes Farmer Resources, Web Resources, Crop Production and Pest Management.

Useful sustainable farming links

My Number One Resource for many years has been ATTRA, National Sustainable Agriculture Information Resource, www.attra.ncat.org. Solid useful info on a range of topics. Very helpful people. Toll-free hot-lines in English and Spanish. Hundreds of helpful publications. Newsletters. Look also on their site for SIFT, (Small-Scale Intensive Farm Training Program) for new farmers. Here’s ATTRA’s  pest management page.

 

Fast becoming another favorite of mine is the newer and rapidly growing eOrganic, the Organic Agriculture part of the Cooperative Extension System.

Many state Extension Services have good websites. Some have particular strengths: Our own Virginia Tech  has lots about vegetables and diseases and pests (not necessarily organic). For locally relevant information, start with your local Extension Office after the EOrganic one. Then prepare for global warming and try one south of you. Cornell is good on fruit and Cornell Plant Pathology runs the Vegetable MD onlineNorth Carolina has good info for commercial growers of vegetables, fruits and flowers, including some publications specifically on organic methods. They also have publications geared more towards home gardeners. And they have another of my favorites: Debbie Roos’ site Growing Small Farms.

 

Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group has produced a series of Virtual Farm Tour DVDs. The series is called Natural Farming Systems in the South.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Grants and information, including free downloads of several really good books such as Managing Cover Crops Profitably. Click on the Learning Center tab.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, seeds for the south and lots more contacts and events. Click on the links button.

Growing for Market magazine. Monthly magazine packed with practical information for market growers.

If you want to join a discussion group, here’s the one I do: Market-Farming listserv

Farmscaping: Symbiont Biological Pest Management Company, Dr Richard McDonald, and more at ATTRA

Virginia Association for Biological Farming www.vabf.org Conference February 8-9, 2013 in Richmond, including a one day Farm School for new farmers and growers.