Lettuce is hard to grow in summer in our Virginia climate. Tokyo bekana (Brassica rapa chinensis) can be used as an alternative. It won’t get bitter in hot weather. Because it is fast-growing, you can sow it when you realize a lettuce shortage is looming – it grows faster than lettuce, and bigger than most lettuce varieties, so you can make up for lost time.
Or, once you’ve tried it, you might decide to plan for Tokyo bekana in the summer rather than lettuce. The flavor is very mild, and most people don’t notice they aren’t eating lettuce. The texture of the white stems is very crunchy and juicy, and the frilly leaves are sweet and tender.The color of the leaves is chartreuse: a light bright lime green. Here is a delicious description of the flavor from Specialty Produce in San Diego, CA.
Tokyo Bekana cabbage is succulent with mild pepper nuances and a melting quality unique to all cabbage varieties.
I haven’t got the figures for nutritional content just now, but I think it’s got to be more nutritious than lettuce. Brassicas generally have more lots of antioxidants than lettuce, for example.
Tokyo Bekana was first cultivated in Japan and is a descendant of Chinese loose-heading celery cabbages (pe tsai). It is widely grown in rural Japan as well as in ex-pat Asian farming communities worldwide.
To grow Tokyo bekana for summer salads
We sow 4/30 – 6/15 and transplant at 2 weeks old. Germination at temperatures of 50-85°F is quick and reliable. Growth is fast. It can be harvested at any stage from microgreens to full-size “heads” – it never actually heads up, as a Napa Chinese cabbage does, but forms a loose head of big frilly leaves about 45 days after sowing.
Sow the seed thinly (3 seeds per inch) in a nursery seed bed. Or sow in pots or plug flats depending on the scale of production you need. Cover to keep bugs off, and transplant when there are 3 or 4 true leaves on each plant. We transplant 4 rows in a 48″ wide bed, but they could be a little closer.
Or you could direct sow 3 or 4 rows per bed. Make individual shallow furrows 1/4-1/2″ deep.
For baby salad greens, sow in 3″ wide bands, or broadcast. Harvest these by cutting when seedlings are 3-4″ tall.
One key to growing delicious Asian greens is to treat hem well: fertile soil, plenty of water, keep the bugs off. 1” (2.5 cm) of water per week, 2” (5 cm) during very hot weather.
You may be thinking “Oh it’s sure to bolt in hot weather!” But if the temperature remains above 50°F (10°C) it will not bolt if treated fairly. Of course, if you don’t water, or don’t harvest when it’s ready, it will bolt. I’ve been slow to learn what’s important. Years ago an Atlanta grower told me he grew arugula all summer in his hoophouse. It was hard for me to understand how that was possible. Last month I was in Jamaica and saw how they can grow kale in very hot weather. Any prolonged dip to 50°F (10°C) triggers bolting. It just happens that in my climate the bolt-triggering temperature happens in many months (but not in June, July, August!)
Harvest Tokyo bekana at any stage: Young baby leaves for salad mix after 25 days, or the whole plant when fully mature at 10-12″ tall (45 days). You can harvest individual leaves and keep coming back for more. Juvenile plants can be cut and bunched for market. Once you have lots you can cut the whole plant. Full size plants weigh up to 1.25 lbs. each.
Tokyo bekana can also be sauteed like bok choy, if you find it grows extremely successfully! I have eaten sauteed lettuce, so I don’t want you lettuce lovers writing in to inform me that’s possible too. I didn’t think much of sauteed lettuce, but I do like sauteed Tokyo bekana. Cooked it pairs well with poultry, pork, sausage, fish, legumes, garlic, cream sauces, cheese, mushrooms, bulb fennel, cucumbers, tomatoes, avocados, grapefruit, lemon, peaches and cherries.
More about Tokyo bekana
It is an open pollinated heirloom variety so the seeds can be saved and replanted.
It can be grown in the fall and spring outdoors, and in the winter hoophouse in our climate. It has good frost tolerance, down to around 25°F (-4°C), perhaps even 15ºF (-9ºC) with thick rowcover.
Maruba Santoh is similar – more about that one next month.