I love Oriental vegetables (and I have just blogged about them for City Planter, if you haven’t seen it yet), but so far I have only scratched the surface of what’s on offer.
Growing Chinese Vegetables in Your Own Backyard, by Geri Harrington, is an American book and it’s an updated version of the original that was published in 1984. Reading gardening books from overseas is usually entertaining, but it does bring some pitfalls – our climate and growing season are different and our gardening techniques somewhat different. The use of peat in gardening, common but increasingly frowned upon here in the UK, is of no concern in the US. But as long as you bear in mind that not everything you read will be applicable in your own garden then reading books from other countries is a lot of fun.
And I have spent a fun afternoon immersed in Chinese vegetables, and learned lots of new things and made notes of plenty of things to go and find out about – the sign of a good gardening book, IMHO.
GCV (as I will call it because I am already tired of typing out the full title) is split into two sections. The first is all about the Chinese vegetables themselves, and is divided up into chapters of different types of vegetables. Each chapter is then subdivided into individual vegetables, with a little bit about their history as well as cultivation, harvesting and culinary details.
So ‘The Chinese Greens’ includes leafy vegetables that can be eaten raw or cooked – amaranth, mustard greens, mizuna and chrysanthemum greens. The culinary hints for mustard greens include using the stems of the larger leaves as a separate vegetable (much as you might for chard) for fridge pickles.
‘The Chinese Cucurbits’ covers winter melon, fuzzy gourd, sweet melon, pickling melon, Asian cucumber, Chinese pumpkin, luffa and bitter melon. Some of those would be easier to grow than others in the UK climate, but I did enjoy learning that the bitterness in bitter melon comes from quinine – so you may enjoy it if you’re a fan of gin and tonic ;)
‘The Chinese Beans’ listed are soy, fava, adzuki, mung and yard-long beans. They all sound exotic, but fava beans are in fact familiar to us as broad beans, and not very oriental at all – although it does depend on how you use them. There are general instructions on drying beans and on sprouting them as well as the harvesting and cooking information.
‘The Chinese Cabbages’ are leafy vegetables that would commonly be cooked – ornamental kale, Chinese broccoli, pak choy and Chinese cabbage. There’s a lovely side note about drying pak choi for winter use as ‘Choy Gone’ on the washing line, but whether the English weather would cooperate with that I don’t know. It might be fun to try next year.
Plants that don’t easily fit into one of the earlier categories are mentioned under a ‘potpourri’ section – burdock, daylilies, snow peas, asparagus peas, Chinese radish and Chinese eggplant. It’s worth noting that although the book is very nice about asparagus peas it’s talking about a different species than the one we’re commonly able to buy here. In the UK we’re sold Lotus tetragonolobus, which has red flowers and although ornamental produces variable feedback from people who try to eat it. The pods have to be eaten very young for it to be palatable. GCV is actually singing the praises of a blue-flowered Psophocarpus tetragonolobus, better known here as the winged bean (although not the easiest plant to grow).
In ‘The Chinese herb garden’ you’ll find bunching onions (Allium fistulosum, aka the Welsh onion that regular readers of this blog will be familiar with), garlic, garlic chives, hot peppers, cilantro (coriander), mitsuba, watercress, sesame and ginger.
The author laughingly suggests growing a parsley garden, with flat-leaved and curly parsley, Hamburg parsley for its roots, cilantro and Chinese parsley, mitsuba as Japanese parsley – which might be quite fun although perhaps more than a little nerdy. But I am unlikely to have an opportunity to test out the suggestion that garlic chives make a good chipmunk deterrent.
Now I know garlic chives as Allium tubersoum, but GCV refers to a fragrant variety that is A. ramosum, having been renamed from A. odoratum, which I hadn’t encountered before and apparently smells like roses!
And the final chapter of part one is ‘The Chinese Water Garden’ and introduces violet-stemmed taro, water chestnut, Chinese lotus and arrowhead, with the idea of growing most of those in a suitably-sized container pond.
Part 2 of the book is all about the nitty gritty of growing Chinese vegetables – including how to take care of your soil, start seeds and garden in containers. It’s followed by an appendix of names (always a tricky topic for Asian vegetables as there are so many different languages involved) and a USDA hardiness map plus a table of seed-starting times and the number of days to maturity for each crop. This style of information is very different to what you’d find in a British gardening book, but useful nonetheless.
Rest assured that I have only scratched the surface of all the interesting things that are to be found in this book, so it may be an interesting winter read if you’re planning on growing a taste of the Orient next year. And I haven’t even touched on the serving suggestions, and did you know that the Chinese avoided scurvy on long ocean voyages by eating ginger, long before us Brits discovered the benefits of limes!
Growing Chinese Vegetables in Your Own Backyard
By Geri Harrington
Paperback, 232 pages
And according to the Storey Press website, there are ebook versions available as well.