Pick oriental vegetables for autumn
by Emma Cooper
Credit: Emma Cooper
An Indian summer is always welcome, but we have to face the fact that the weather is soon going to get colder and it’s time to bring in the last of the summer harvests before the frosts arrive. That doesn’t mean we have to stop growing though – there are plenty of plants that survive and thrive in cooler days.
Traditional winter vegetables, such as broad beans, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, leeks and parsnips, are popular choices but they’re tricky to grow in small gardens because they need a lot of space and take a long time to grow.
Oriental vegetables are a much better option – they’re compact, happy in containers and provide tasty leaves into the winter. For all of these leafy vegetables, small leaves are great eaten raw in salads, while larger leaves are good for stir-fries and other cooked recipes.
Tatsoi has small leaves that resemble pak choi but grow in pretty rosettes close to the ground. You can sow seed throughout October – each plant needs about 20cm of space, so once the seedlings come up you’ll need to thin them down as the plants grow (you can eat any plants you remove). Your first harvest should be in about six weeks. Pick leaves as and when you want them – they have a mild, cabbage-like flavour.
Mizuna isn’t quite as hardy as tatsoi and will benefit from a bit of protection (try making cloches from clear plastic bottles, or invest in a cold frame or tunnel). Plants only need to be 15cm apart and in a sunny spot you can expect your first harvest in about a month. Mizuna’s long, serrated leaves have a mildly spicy flavor, cut them as you need them, leaving the plants to regrow.
If you fancy something that packs a bit more of a punch, and looks great too, then try a variety of mustard greens. The larger varieties, such as ‘Giant Red’, make quite a show in the flower beds over winter. Grow plants 30cm apart and again, use leaves as you need them. Baby leaves will be ready in about a month, but you may have to wait until the New Year for the larger varieties to grow to full size.
The growth of all plants slows down as the days get shorter, and may come to a complete halt in the darkest days of winter. Sow seeds as early in the autumn as you can and put them in your sunniest spots. As the days start to get longer surviving plants will grow again to give you early spring crops. Tatsoi, mizuna and mustard leaves are all members of the brassica (cabbage) family, and will start to flower when the weather warms up – but the flowers are edible too!
Spinach is a more familiar plant that likes this time of year, and makes a lovely addition to salads and stir-fries. There are special Oriental varieties (such as ‘Mikado’) that have slightly more pointed leaves and longer stems, but if you have a favourite variety that’s fine too. Sow your seeds where you want your plants to grow – spinach is not a big fan of being transplanted. Thin excess seedlings to leave plants about 30cm apart. If the weather is dry then keep your spinach well-watered until the weather cools down. Baby leaves will be ready to harvest in a few weeks.
Young spring onions look delicate but add a powerful flavour to salads and are indispensable in Asian cookery. There’s a special variety called ‘White Lisbon (Winter Hardy)’ that can be sown until the end of October, although plants will benefit from some protection during nasty weather. Once the seedlings start to come up, gradually thin them down by harvesting some and leaving the rest to grow larger – they’re edible at any size.
One of the easiest crops for indoor gardeners is pea shoots. A popular delicacy throughout Asia, pea shoots are expensive to buy but cheap and quick to grow. You can use any pea seeds you have left over from earlier in the year, or buy seeds sold for sprouting, or even dried peas. Put a shallow layer of compost or vermiculite in a tray, and then sow the peas very close together – really pack them in, although it’s best if you stop them from touching one another. Cover with another thin layer of compost and keep them moist. The peas will start to sprout in a few days, and grow rapidly. When they’re about 10cm tall you can snip off the tops, leaving the bottom leaves intact to continue growing for a second and even a third harvest.
Pea shoots have a delicate pea flavour and make a lovely addition to sandwiches, salads and stir-fries. Sow a tray every few days for regular supplies throughout the year.