This is the second installment in a series about my experiences growing Asian vegetables. You can find the other articles by clicking on the tag “Growing Asian Vegetables” at the bottom of this post.
Whether you call it pak choi, pac choi, or bok choy, this vegetable is an easy to grow and versatile member of the cabbage family. Known to have been cultivated in China since ancient times, its popularity has now spread throughout Asia and on to Europe and the Western world. In America, the white stemmed varieties are often seen in groceries and supermarkets, while Asian markets are also likely to have green stemmed and baby varieties available.
Home gardeners have quite a few varieties to choose from. Kitazawa Seeds, who specializes in Asian vegetable seeds, has fifteen different varieties listed this year. But pak choi is no specialty vegetable anymore. Even the more generalized seed purveyors like Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Nichols Garden Nursery each have five different varieties listed.
I’ve certainly not grown all of the varieties, but I’ve grown most of the different general types. Probably the most common are the white stem, green leaf varieties. Their sizes range from the 18” tall Joi Choi, to the miniature 5” tall Toy Choy, both of which are hybrids. Many of the open-pollinated varieties have names like “Medium Pak Choi” or “Extra Dwarf” that indicate the size of the mature plant.
I’m a little more partial myself to the green stem types, like the open pollinated Shanghai. Mei Qing was one of the first hybrids of this type and was bred for both cold and heat tolerance as well as resistance to bolting. I’ll talk more about the bolting issue later. Brisk Green and Black Summer hybrids are similar to Mei Qing, with slightly different heights and coloration.
There are also quite a few specialty pak chois that have been developed in recent times. Golden Yellow Hybrid lives up to its name with yellowish-green leaves and stems. Varieties like Purple Choi Hybrid, Violetta, and Red Choi add a touch of purplish-red to salad mixes when harvested at the baby leaf stage. The purple leaf varieties have been touted as being more nutritional, but be aware the color does fade when they are cooked.
One reason Pak Choi is so versatile is that it can be used at any stage of growth. Even large varieties like Joi Choi can be harvested when still small. And when the plant bolts to flower, the leaves remain edible, while the flowers and shoots are tasty as well.
In general, the various Pak Chois usually prefer cooler growing conditions, though some varieties have been adapted to hotter weather. Shanghai and Mei Qing do well in our hot summers here in zone 6, while Hanakan and San Fan are reported to tolerate hot conditions but not the cold. Many of the varieties do have good frost tolerance, and smaller plants frequently survive temperatures down to 20F here when protected. It does pay to read the catalog descriptions with all Pak Choi varieties, since some do better under specific growing conditions.
Pak choi is biennial in growth, but will run to seed sooner if stressed. The bolting problem is most apparent in spring. As with Chinese Cabbage, it is thought that exposure to temperatures below 50F may bring on flowering in some varieties, while other varieties may flower in response to the lengthening daylight. Heat or water stress may also cause bolting. The best defense is to plant bolt-resistant varieties, and keep the plants growing well and without being stressed.
Pak Choi may be grown from transplants or seed may be sown in place. One strategy is to sow seeds thickly, with some plants harvested at the baby stage and others left to mature. Like lettuce, Pak Choi has a fairly shallow root system, and appreciates a fertile soil with good moisture retention. It does well with dense plantings, which also serve to conserve moisture by shading the soil and reducing weed competition. Flea beetles, and cabbage caterpillars love to feast on the leaves. Floating row cover material will help to keep both pests under control. Slugs can also be a problem.
Individual leaves of Pak Choi may be harvested as needed, or the whole plant may be harvested. If cut just above the soil line, the plant will usually resprout and grow from the roots. Several harvests can then be had from one planting.
Pak choi may be cooked in many ways: stir-fried, added to soups, grilled, or steamed. It can also be eaten raw. The leaf stalks are juicy and crisp, especially in the white stemmed varieties. The green stalks tend to have more flavor than the white ones, and the leaves of all varieties have more flavor than the stalks.
If you’ve never grown pak choi, you might consider giving it a spot in your own garden. With so many varieties to choose from, there’s bound to be one that suits your tastes. I’ll be back again soon with another installment.
Wow – great photos! They all look so delicious. I love these greens but have never tried growing them before – you may have just inspired me to try…provided I can make some room! I wonder if these might be contenders for the cold frame in fall?
Pak choi grows great here in the fall cold frame. It should do well for you too!
Thanks for all those photos and information about the different variety. We have one variety that we’ve grown but I don’t know much about it because the packet is in chinese. There are enough seeds to last a lifetime in the packet, but even still I may experiment with another variety next year.
I’m enjoying your Asian Vegetable tutorials. I have built a new smaller raised bed for Asian veggies because I have learned so much from the Blogger Gardener Community about them. Thank you.
Thanks Lynda. I’m happy to share what I have learned.
Beautiful photos! Thank you for the informative post. I tried growing pac choi this spring, but it bolted before putting on some size. We ate it anyway. I can’t wait to try it again in the fall.
I’m betting it will do much better in the fall. Mei Qing is one of the few varieties that doesn’t bolt for me in spring. The Golden Yellow sometimes flowers even before I get it set out!
I’ve become a big fan of Asian greens in the last couple of years. One of our nearby nurseries stocks the Kitazawa Seeds selection in their store, so it makes finding seed a breeze. I just started another round of the Shanghai, along with some tatsoi, and should be able to transplant them out soon. Last year I had Tatsoi going all year, but protected under a layer of Agribon-19 to help shield the greens from the hottest summer days. My first round of pak choi though was over winter, so I’ll have to see how it does in summer. I can’t imagine not growing Asian greens now as they’re so easy and prolific…tasty too!
I can’t imagine not growing the Asian greens either. This year I’m growing some yardlong beans for the first time in years. I’ve grown them in the past and didn’t know how to use them. I think now that won’t be an issue, as I’m much more adventerous in the kitchen.
I give up! 🙂 All of our Asian greens have started to bolt again this spring and most are not even big enough to harvest yet…even the Red Choi you sent is showing signs of seed heads. Oh well, I guess I can’t win them all and will have to make due with all the other wonderful options we have available in the “greens” department.
I’ll just have to live vicariously through you when it comes to Asian vegetables…yours look great.
The Red Choi here is bolting as well. It does seem to hold longer in the fall.
this is a new vegetable to me and I love it! We only tried it cause my daughter learned about it on a kids program, Kai Lan and wanted some. Then I bought seeds! Too bad she doesn’t enjoy it as much as she thought she would. But at least she tried it and maybe she will learn to like it!
I love pac chois. I grow several different kinds. Tatsoi, white stemmed baby bok choy, Shanghai bok choy, Yakatta-na, and Fun Jen. I never grow tired of them since they can be eaten so many different ways. Though the Fun Jen I use exclusively raw as I don’t think it cooks well.
Choi is a terrific plant to grow. Not only delicious but one of the most beautifully formed plants you will find. I just switched over from the baby white stem to a green stem (Black Summer). Most of mine started to bolt when they were close to harvest size. It didn’t affect the flavor, and the flower spikes are actually very good. I guess the plant stops producing new stems after it bolts, as it did not seem to affect the flavor.
Thanks for the posting. I’ve been thinking I should have grown some and now I will. I even have a seed source: Emily (my daughter) who got seeds from her sister who resides in China.
Great post! Those nice pics and write up have inspired me to try a few more varieties. I always stir fry our Pac Choi but thought of making a few other ways to cook them. Got a good recipe to share?
Hope all is well for you — watched the weather last evening and thought of you two.
We hunkered down in the basement for a bit when the tornado sirens went off, but there’s no damage here at HA. We dodged the bullet this time.
Glad the tornadoes are steering clear of Happy Acres!
Thanks for these tutorials, I ordered a catalog from the Kitazawa Seed Company to doe some reading and learn more. I am growing some Asian greens this year, but would like to grow more as they seem to be good candidates for the Maine weather.
First, I am getting more enthusiastic about pak choi since I find it handles heat and cold better than say western cabbage…and this year all my brassicas were hit relentlessly by cabbage worms, but they hardly touched the pak choi. I had a crop in spring, used them all before it became too hot and planted another lot in fall. Some are huge, all are quite productive with no flea beetles around. I now want to try to save seed, since the variety I have now–Prize is the name–is a large white-stemmed variety that did much better than any other I’ve tried, AND it’s open-pollinated. So I appreciated the info on minimum temps–it’s supposed to go to 20 tomorrow night so I guess I’d better dig the two best and move them to my root cellar. The smallest I’ll try building up soil around, then covering over with leaves. As to how to cook them, yes I mostly use them in stir-fries but they’re also fine in soups. As with chard, I rip the leaves off the stalks, chop both and cook the stalks a few more minutes than the leaves. I got the seed from High Mowing.