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Kip Anderson
Gardener Kip Anderson

January: Improvising for Greens

Kip's improvisational gardening skills are put to the test when he runs out of his favorite Chinese cabbage for his salads this winter
by Kip Anderson

Chinese cabbage is the savior of late fall and early winter. I start it from seed in the latter half of July — with soilless mix in individual cells on raised benches — and transplant it into fertile garden soil a month or so later. It must be protected from the cabbage butterfly by applying B.t. (Bacillus thuringiensis) or lightweight row cover, and harvested in late October before hard freezes hit. It can be stored for months in perfect condition by wrapping it in plastic bags and placing it in a refrigerator.

I especially like the barrel-shaped Napa type — varieties such as 'China Pride' or 'Blues.' Some people like to eat it lightly stir-fried, but my preference is to treat it as a salad green (or not-so-green, perhaps, because the interiors are almost completely blanched). It is crunchy and succulent and, to my mind, even better than lettuce. So you can imagine how I felt when the last stored head was used up, just after Christmas.

No help for it then but to visit the produce aisle at the grocery store. Well yes, they offered some fairly decent mesclun, the baby leaves of various types of salad greens, but it cost several dollars for a bag weighing just a few ounces. Ouch! Fortunately there is something I can do about that.

Going through my seed inventory left over from 2005, I found a few half-full packets of different mesclun mixes, ranging from mild to very tangy. A packet containing enough seed to plant out a couple of square yards costs no more than a bag of the finished product at the store. I set to work.

The best news is that growing small leaves does not require exacting cultural conditions. Any well-lighted area free from frost is adequate, though we are fortunate enough to have the luxury of a greenhouse. I place soilless mix, lightly fertilized, in a plastic seed flat to the depth of two inches. Then I make shallow furrows an inch or two apart and carefully sow the seed (4 to 6 seeds per running inch of furrow), covering them with more of the growing mix and gently watering.

That's all there is to it. I can think of no good reason, provided you have an appropriate place to do it, that you shouldn't try this too. A few weeks after planting, grab some scissors and begin snipping. Oh, and don't forget to start a fresh flat at that time to ensure a continuous supply. If you are careful not to cut the baby leaves below the point where they emerge from the crown of the stem, new leaves should grow, permitting a second harvest from each flat.

Many seed catalogs have been late to arrive this year. In February I hope to be able to review some of the new flower and vegetable varieties for 2006.

Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.

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Published August 31, 2007