I’ve been reading Joy Larkcom’s memoirs ‘Just Vegetating’, and they have been reminding me to get out into the greenhouse and keep on sowing, even though summer is at its height now. There can’t be many memoirs that send you hunting through your seed box and scuttling down to the end of the garden, but Joy’s is something else. It tells the tales of her extraordinary horticultural travels across the years, through a collection of her old features strung together with new writing. These trips included a visit to China, Japan and Taiwan in the 1980s.
A small selection of Oriental vegetables in the back of a catalogue sparked Joy’s interest, and she put together a small team to travel with, learnt Cantonese – as you do – , and set off to see what she could find. One of the major results of these particular travels is the popularity of Oriental leaves for winter salads and stir fries, and it is time to sow the very same right now.
Joy recognised – after extensive trialling in her own garden – that these were not only particularly well suited to our conditions, but also spectacularly useful in the kitchen: they provide colour, texture and a bit of mustardy punch at a time of year when green stuff is dull and hard to come by. Sow them in spring and they are troublesome though. Several hate extremes of temperature, so cold at night and warm in the day sends them into a huff and they grow spindly and throw up flowers, making no leaves to speak of. They do the same in response to lengthening days in the run up to mid-summer, so gardeners that sow early in the year are often disappointed. Sow them now, however, with mid-summer safely tucked behind us, days and nights almost equally warm and lovely, and days (whisper it) shortening all the time, and they fatten up, concentrating all their energies into producing those varied and lovely leaves. With luck they shouldn’t do the annoying flowering thing until next spring, and you can get an entire autumn and winter’s cutting from them in the meantime.
Sow them straight into the ground if you wish and if you can, but there are a couple of benefits to sowing in the greenhouse. Personally i have no space at the plot: every inch is currently accounted for, but slowly crops are starting to come up. An early sowing of beetroot is almost cleared and the potatoes are slowly coming up. If I sow now I’ll have sturdy little plugs to plant out the second those potatoes are out of the ground and in the pot. By planting them a little larger you also help them negotiate that early awkward stage when – them being brassicas, or members of the cabbage family – flea beetle can do them real damage. Once plants are larger they can shrug off being peppered with tiny holes, but a bad attack on a just-emerging seedling and they’re done for.
Joy introduced a large range of these mustards to the UK, and many more have been introduced and bred since. They’ve become quite a favourite. I am going to be sowing ‘Golden Streaks’, ‘Red Frills’, ‘Red Pak Choi’ alongside the (non brassica) chop suey greens. I reckon it will be a colourful winter, thanks to Joy.