Gardening Book Review: Oriental Vegetables

Oriental Vegetables: The Complete Guide for the Gardening Cook
By Joy Larkcom

232 pages

I bought this book last year when I was looking to expand my knowledge about growing and cooking with Oriental vegetables. I have found that there isn’t a whole lot of detailed information available in the Western world regarding these fascinating and great tasting vegetables. Most gardening books I have read will perhaps offer some scant details on Chinese cabbage and maybe Pak Choi, but that is about it. This book helped immensely to fill my knowledge gap, and it is now occupying a prime spot on my gardening bookshelf.

The English author’s love affair with Chinese vegetables began back in the 1970’s, when seeds were hard to find and information was just about as scarce. After growing them for years by trial and error she realized their potential for success with many gardeners. In 1985 she arranged for a tour of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. There she talked with gardeners, growers, and market vendors in her quest to learn more. After her trip, she also did extensive research in North America to see what various Oriental communities in the West were growing.

Armed with this research plus personal knowledge gained from her own experience, she set out to write the book. It was first published in 1991, with a second edition out in 2007. The second edition is the one I bought.

In the book, she has concentrated more on Chinese and Japanese varieties, with particular emphasis to the Brassica family. She acknowledges that naming of the plants is a highly confusing issue, and provides some welcome clarity by listing the botanical names as well as commonly used names in both Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, Japanese, and English languages.

The book is divided into three parts, with part one being an encyclopedia of plants. She purposely leaves out many vegetables that are fairly common in the West, such as eggplant, melons, okra, peppers, spinach, and tomatoes, in order to concentrate on the more unfamiliar ones. For the Oriental vegetables there are detailed instructions given on growing them, including climate requirements, spacing, harvesting and storage. Of particular interest to me was the information on what causes the brassicas to bolt, and the ways to avoid this common problem. Missing are any photographs, which would have been nice to have. The book is illustrated with black and white drawings by Elizabeth Douglass.

Part two is devoted to gardening techniques, with special emphasis given to methods and practices particularly helpful for the Oriental vegetables. Many of these vegetables lend themselves to intensive cropping, and a section is devoted to ways of improving and maintaining soil fertility and health. The author grows organically, with no use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or weed killers. There is a nice section on protected cropping that offers a primer on using greenhouses, poly tunnels, cold frames, cloches and row covers to extend the season for these crops.

Part three has recipes and cooking tips, while the appendices contain growing charts, a plant name cross reference, and a long list of international sources for seeds.

In summary, I found this book to be an invaluable reference book, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about growing this fascinating group of vegetables. This book concentrates more on the growing of Oriental vegetables rather than on the cooking of them, and in doing so it nicely fills a void on the subject.

DISCLAIMER: I did not receive a copy of this book for reviewing, I am not related to the author, blah blah blah.

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12 Responses to Gardening Book Review: Oriental Vegetables

  1. Daphne Gould says:

    I’m a big fan of Asian greens too. I’ve read two books on them Growing Chinese Vegetables and a cookbook on Asian greens that my townhouse mates have (forget the name), but not the one you have. They both complain about the naming of them. I never know what to call things either so I tend to just stick with Asian greens if they are in the brassica family. I think this might be the first year that I’m not trying something new in that group of plants. Usually I try a couple new ones. My biggest problem is that I like most of them. They are all similar. So it is hard to choose which ones to grow.

  2. Robin says:

    I just went and took a peak at this book. It definitely looks like a good book to have.

  3. meemsnyc says:

    Oooh, this is a great book to have! I’m lucky to have a Chinese Chef as a dad so we’ve tried lots of different veggies growing up. Two books I recommend are Breath of a Wok and Stir Frying to the Sky’s Edge both by the same author Grace Young. My dad has some recipes in the book, but it also has a chapter on recipes with chinese vegetables.

  4. Kelly says:

    What a nice review, I may have to add this one to my wish list.

  5. I saw you were reading this the other day, and I’m glad you reviewed it. It’s a shame there are no photographs, but it sounds like a fabulous book all the same. I’ll have to see if I can unearth a copy here. I’m still in the bok choy/tatsoi phase, and love these greens as they tend to better than spinach in our garden, but I would like to branch out more and try a wider variety of oriental vegetables. I noticed a nursery not far from here had a wonderful selection of specialty Asian greens seeds when I was picking up my Mason Bees last year. Next time I visit I’m going to look a little closer, and see what else they have.

  6. mac says:

    Thanks for the review, I enjoy reading the first edition, I’ll have to get the 2nd edition to see if there’s any updated info.
    When Geri Harrington revised her “Growing Chinese Vegetables in Your Own Backyard” she edited out a lot of useful information in the 2nd edition (IMO), hopefully Joy Larkcom didn’t do the same.

  7. Meredith says:

    Sounds like a great reference, Villager. I am a baby beginner with the Asian greens, just trying out my first couple last year, and definitely could stand to educate myself.

    I *love* your disclaimer, by the way.

  8. Julie says:

    Always look forward to what’s new in your ‘Now Reading’ widget. Can i start looking forward to your reviews now, too ; ))

  9. Mike says:

    I enjoyed your review…as a matter of fact I have added this book to our Amazon wish list and look forward to reading it myself. It looks like the author has a few other books as well that I will have to check into.

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