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How to Grow Bok Choy

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How to Grow Bok Choy
Photo fo Bok Choy Plants

We're all familiar with bok choy in Chinese cooking, but few of us grow it. Once you have it in your garden, you'll come up with many more ways to use it.

Photo: © Marie Iannotti

Overview and Description

Bok choy is a type of Chinese cabbage. It's more common Chinese name, "Pak choi", translates to "white cabbage", probably because of the blanched centers, but there are green varieties, too. The stalks are crisp and the leaves are smooth and tender with a flavor somewhere between cabbage and chard.
  • Leaves: Plants from an upright head, with outward flaring leaves. White or green stalks look like smooth, non-stringy celery..

  • Flowers: Flower stalks grow from the center of the plant and have the yellow, 4-petal cross typical of the cruciferous family. The stalk can shoot up to twice the size of the plant.

Botanical Name

Brassica rapa var. chinensis

Common Name:

Bok choy, Pak choi, Bok choi

Hardiness Zone

Bok choy is a biennial. It is not as winter hardy as smaller leaved Asian greens, but it may survive under cover in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 - 7. However it will quickly blot to seed, in the spring.

Sun Exposure

Bok choy can handle full sun, but it grows best in partial shade. It needs about 3 - 5 hours of sun each day.

Mature Size

Size will depend on the variety you are growing. In general, baby bak choy is less than 10 inches tall and standard bok choy varieties grow 1 - 2 feet tall, with a spread of about 12 inches.

Days to Harvest

Depending on the variety and the weather, bok choy should be ready to harvest in 45 - 60 days.

Slice the plants off about an inch above the ground and they should resprout for you. The plants will be smaller, but still delicious.

Suggested Varieties

Although there are dozens of varieties of bok choy, many times you will find seed packets with no variety name. The small "baby" bak choys are extremely popular in China and becoming more widely available elsewhere. You'll need more of them for a recipe, but they grow very quickly.
  • 'Black Summer' - Plant in fall and harvest into winter. Very dark leaves.

  • 'Ching-Chiang' - Quick growing dwarf that can handle early spring weather.

  • 'Joi Choi' - A medium-sized plant with good bolt resistance.

  • 'Mei Qing Choi' - Dwarf variety with quick growing (35 days),

  • 'Win-Win' - Extra large, dense heads. Slow to bolt.

Uses

Bok choy is easily found in most grocery stores, but most of us don't know what to do with it other than stir fry. The tender young leaves can be eaten raw in salads or sandwiches. You can swap it for celery sticks, toss it in soups and stews and even grill it. Bok choy can be substituted for other cabbages, but if you're still most comfortable with it in Chinese dishes, here are a few to try:

Growing Tips

Soil: You'll need well-draining soil with a lot of rich, organic matter mixed in. Bok choy will grow in a soil pH from 6.0 - 7.5, something in the 6.5 - 7.0 range is best.

Planting: You can direct sow or start seed indoors about 4 - 5 weeks before your last frost date. Begin sowing outdoors 1 - 2 weeks before your last frost date. Seeds are quick to germinate, usually within 4 - 8 days. Hold off transplanting until nighttime temperatures remain above 50 F or be prepared to cover them. If they are exposed to a frost or prolonged cold temperatures, they think they've been through a winter and start to bolt.

Plant seed 1/2 inch deep, spaced 1 inch apart. Thin and eat the plants when they are a couple of inches tall. If you are growing full-sized plants, thin to at least a 6 inch spacing.

Maintenance:

Bok choy needs consistent watering, especially in the fall. Drought can cause it to bolt to seed. If your soil is rich, you should not need to feed the plants. Otherwise use a fertilizer high in nitrogen.

You can succession plant every couple of weeks, for a longer harvest period. Stop planting when the weather turns hot, then start new plants for the fall in late summer.

Plants in the brassica family do not cross pollinate with plants outside their species. Seed can be saved for 4 years.

Pests & Problems

Bok choy is not usually affected by the usual brassica diseases. It is, however, attractive to many insect pests, including cabbage loopers and cabbage worms. Flea beetles can riddle the leaves. Row covers will help to minimize damage from all of these. Slugs, white flies and aphids can also harm the leaves.

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