Pak Choi: Winter Joy

Finally, the pak choi is ready to harvest.

Pak choi heads

Three heads of pak choi make a generous side dish with mushrooms in the wok.

With a sharp knife, I quickly cut the loose head of green leaves with their snowy white stems. I will leave the base of the stem and the root in place inside the cold frame. They often sprout new leaves when cut this time of year.

Pak choi (aka bok choy, or Chinese cabbage) is an amazingly simple plant, and yet it’s a bit elusive to grow. If started in the wrong season, or exposed to a bout of unseasonable weather, it will bolt (go to seed) almost immediately, providing you with only a tiny, if still edible, plant. It’s shallow-rooted, so if you cultivate around it too much, or let the weeds get too close, it will perform badly.

But when it is happy, the gardener is happy. The spoon-shaped leaves seem to double in size overnight as the late winter weather improves. An impressive volume of small leaves sprout from its center.

bok choy

There are a number of chois, and I seem to have better luck with the loose-headed, white stemmed variety. The cupped leaves grow to 8 inches long and half as wide. They fan out to give space to the tender new shoots. Their white stalks take on the shape and manner of celery, although not as thick. When cut, the leaves are tender and the stalks are crisp. Everything — including the flower head, if it happens to send one up before you get to it — is edible.

Yesterday I harvested the first full heads (we’d been swiping leaves for salad). Some had made it into the ground as doubles, with two seedlings close together, so I took pains to leave behind the second, smaller plant when cutting the larger one.

bok choy in November

The pak choi was a modest row behind the lettuce in the cold frame in late November, when we had our first snow. The lettuce became a Thanksgiving salad. The pak choi wasn’t bothered by the cold, but didn’t start gaining size until mid-January.

Three plants were enough for a succulent side dish with shiitake mushrooms in the wok. The pliable, earthy mushrooms were a wonderful counterpoint to the crisp, juicy pak choi stems and the mildly bitter, mustardy leaves.

Bok choy in February

A large head of pak choi has been cut away from the smaller plant on the left, which will mature quickly. Another pair of chois are in the center of the row. The lettuce in front has begun to grow back from its roots, which were left in the ground when cutting salad for Thanksgiving dinner.

February is the perfect time to harvest this overwintered vegetable. It is also a great time to plant another crop. With consistent weather conditions and water, a crop planted now will yield more stir-fry dishes in 6 to 8 weeks, and be out of the garden by May. It’s a good crop to put into the tomato bed before the tomatoes.

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