Growing Beautiful Bok Choy (Pak Choi)

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Bok choy/Pak choi

Every autumn when I watch the bok choy plants in my garden plump up in only a month, I am amazed at the accomplishments of the ancient plant breeders of Southern China. From a bitter mustard they eventually created crisp, thick-stemmed bok choy, also spelled pak choi or pac choi. Under any name, bok choy deserves a place in every autumn garden for these reasons:

  • It's fast. Depending on variety, you will wait only 40 days for a head of baby bok choy, or 50 days for a full size variety. Bok choy is especially suited to the shortening days of fall, and its broad leaves have a special talent for making use of dwindling natural light.
  • It's nutritious. A one cup serving of cooked bok choy (about half of a baby bok choy) provides all the vitamin A you need in a day, and more than half of your daily quota of vitamin C.
  • It's beautiful. Bok choy's thick leaf stems grow so quickly that they seldom suffer injuries, and they make a beautiful green-and-white vegetable on the plate. In the last few seasons I have enjoyed trying red-leafed varieties, which look stunning in the garden and turn green when they are cooked.

What is Bok Choy?

One of two types of Chinese cabbage, bok choy has thick, crisp stems that have earned it common names including Chinese chard and spoon cabbage. Seeds have been found in ancient burial sites in China more than 5,000 old, but English-speaking gardeners have been growing bok choy for less than 100 years. The name bok choy is based on the Cantonese word for "white vegetable".

Bok choy, also known as pak choi or pac choi

Baby bok choy are dwarf varieties that mature to less than 10 inches ( 25 cm) tall. In the fall garden, sturdy little baby bok choy are as easy to grow as radishes.

Like other mustards, garden bok choy faces serious challenges from flea beetles when grown in spring, and is also quick to bolt when days are getting longer and warmer. Bok choy grown in the fall garden has far fewer pest problems, and rarely bolts. When mature heads are cut high, with the stub remaining in the ground, bok choy will regrow a small second head.

I have read accounts of bok choy surviving temperatures below 0°F (-18°C) in an unheated greenhouse, and indeed bok choy is an excellent low-light vegetable to grow through winter under protected conditions. However, in the open garden it is best to harvest bok choy before the plants freeze hard, which can happen at 25°F (-4°C). When freezing weather is predicted, I gather any bok choy left in the garden and store it in the refrigerator.

Harvested bok choy/pak choi

Cooking Bok Choy

In typical mustard style, bok choy often tastes slightly bitter raw, though cool weather has a sweetening effect on the leaves. Cooking bok choy neutralizes any bitter compounds present while brightening the leaves' color. The most classic bok choy cooking method is to stir fry trimmed stalks or halved heads with garlic and ginger, which is often served with braised tofu or seared salmon.

Historically, bok choy has been stir fried, braised or sautéed, which preserves much of the nutrient content of the leaves. You can also grill bok choy, or chop it into Asian-flavoured soups. If your garden produces more bok choy than you can use, you can steam and freeze it, or ferment it into Korean style kimchi. Like properly made sauerkraut, kimchi will keep in the refrigerator for several months.

Bok choy is one of those crops that grows so well in gardens that you will probably promote it from an experimental oddity to staple fall crop after a couple of seasons. I think it is among the most outstanding veggies you can grow in the waning days of autumn.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"Does it still have beneficial effects isuch as vitamin conteny if juiced?"
Valerie Eaton on Saturday 8 September 2012
"I also grow tatsoi, purple tatsoi, vitamin green, and komatsuna. They're all a lot like bok choi, but with narrower stems. In my garden, the slugs go after the bok choi first, leaving the tatsoi, vitamin green, and komatsuna to me..."
EM on Saturday 8 September 2012
"Val,you can obtain a nutritious juice from bok choy. Go for it."
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 8 September 2012
"Thank you Barbara I have a bed of it at my allotment and was wondering how I would use it. From the article I can eat it raw too, so that is a good thing from an experiment with seeds I@d never heard of! "
Valerie Eaton on Saturday 8 September 2012
"Are they grow also in Sweden during spring time?"
Nelia Rantanen on Saturday 16 March 2013
"Nelia, I would seek some local advice, but I suspect that rapidly lengthening days might trigger spring-sown bok choy to bolt. You should be able to grow excellent crops in late summer."
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 17 March 2013
"I love bok choy! http://farmingeek.org/farming-how-to/how-to-start-an-organic-farm/how-to-grow-chives-using-organic-methods and this page helped me alot about bok choy."
Jackie on Thursday 28 March 2013
"are the yellow flowers any indication of it being too old? can u eat the flowers|?B"
Barb Morgan on Thursday 30 May 2013
"Barb, you can use the yellow flowers for color in salads or for a mustard tang in rice dishes. The very young green seed pods also are edible. Bok choy that has flowered is no longer good to eat except for the flowers. Time to pull it and plant something else!"
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 30 May 2013
"I boughty my bok choi as a started from the nursery and in only a couple of weeks it has flowered! Reading the above comment, it now means it's done? I know absolutely nothing about gardening, so did not touch the plant at all. "
Erika on Saturday 1 June 2013
"Erika, nurseries often sell plants in spring that will bolt as soon as you get them home. Tsk tsk. Bok choy, cilantro and various mustards should be grown only in fall, particularly if they are to be transplanted. Nurseries do their customers no favors by selling them plants than are doomed to fail by their very nature. Hang in there, this was not your fault!"
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 2 June 2013
"I live and garden in central Florida near the Gulf. I start my Bok Choi and Michelle cabbage by seed around December or January. If the weather stays too cool I leave the plants in the green house a little longer but when I set them out they usually mature before bolting and I get my crop if the worms aren't too aggressive and get them first. This year all went well because Global warming froze us nearly out of the gardening business. "
Andy Micklos on Friday 7 March 2014
"How much space does bok choy need to grow? "
Lolita on Sunday 22 November 2015
"Space requirements vary with variety. Dwarf varieties can be thinned to a hand's width apart, but full-size varieties need twice that much space. "
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 23 November 2015
"I grow my Bok Choy in plastic pots of the 3 gal size. They seems to be more than big enough."
Andrew Micklos on Wednesday 3 February 2016

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