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Growing Chinese Broccoli: Delicious Gai Lan

The start of spring is always a joyous time! With a few months of cool temperatures on the horizon, you’ll want to consider what you can harvest that grows well without summer’s usual heat. Chinese broccoli is a great addition to your garden and table! A delicious and versatile brassica, growing Chinese broccoli is a fast and easy option. With a grow time of just 4-7 weeks, you’ll be harvesting in no time!

A broccoli that Chinese cuisine has utilized for thousands of years, this traditional vegetable is now easy to find and grow in the US from seeds purchased online or starts in nurseries. Packed full of antioxidants & vitamin C, this little plant packs a punch. 

A little like bok choy, a little like broccoli, it straddles the fence between bitter green and sweet. In a Chinese dish it’s often mistaken for bok choy, but the texture is a little less juicy-crisp and a little more like traditional broccoli. It can be cut up and added to stir-fries, or cooked whole in oyster sauce. One of the earliest plants in human cultivation, people have been fermenting this vegetable for millennia to preserve it before the time of refrigeration.  

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Quick Care Guide

Growing Chinese broccoli
target=”_blank” rel=”nofollow”>Source: mich.robinson
Common Name(s)Gai lan, Kai lan, Chinese kale, Chinese broccoli
Scientific NameBrassica oleracea var. alboglabra
Days to Harvest40-70
LightFull sun 
Water:1 inch per week
SoilWell draining, rich; sandy to silty loam
FertilizerCompost; 10-10-10 fertilizer
PestsCabbage loopers, snails & slugs
DiseasesDowny mildew, damping off

All About Chinese Broccoli

Chinese broccoli in bloom
A slightly-wild patch of Chinese kale in bloom. Source: Taekwonweirdo

Chinese broccoli, or Brassica oleracea var. Alboglabra goes by many names. It has been called Chinese kale, gai lan and kai lan. For all its names, this ancient Chinese vegetable with a beautiful white or yellow flower is guaranteed to please your taste buds. It’s packed full of nutrients and fiber, and like other members of the cabbage family, is an early-season harvest with outstanding flavor. 

Chinese broccoli is a short leafy vegetable with thick stems and green leaves growing around a thick main stalk. The flat broad leaves can grow 1-3 inches across and 3-5 inches long. 

 It produces a flower early in its life, but this doesn’t take away from the flavor at all! When the flowers appear, it’s actually a sign it’s time to start harvesting. 

These plants have a relatively short life. They germinate quickly, and within about 4-7 weeks grow to about a foot in height with fully developed leaves and flowers. Almost the entire above-ground portion of the plants are eaten, from stems to leaves and flowers! 

Planting Chinese Broccoli

A cool-season vegetable, Chinese kale can be grown year-round depending on your average daily temperatures, it prefers temperatures between 50-75 degrees. It’s a wonderful fall and winter harvest for growers in zones 9 & 10, and a great early spring crop for anyone gardening with a fear of a late frost. In a far northern climate, or in cool and shaded gardens, this crop can even do well in the summer. 

Check your upcoming climate conditions; if you have 5-7 weeks of cool temperatures forecast go ahead and sow your seeds! You can sow either in trays and transplant out once the plants reach about 3 inches in height, or you can direct sow into your amended garden soil. Sow seeds 1/4 in deep and space them 4-6 inches apart in rows 18-24 inches apart. Once plants emerge, thin any seedlings that are closer than 4 inches apart, or growing multiple seedlings in a single spot. 

After you sow, be sure to keep the soil or trays evenly moist until germination, and continue misting your plants until they reach three inches in height. 

Chinese broccoli grows well in containers and raised beds! Since gardeners are better able to control the types of soil present in these growing areas, your plants have a better chance of thriving. If you’re growing in containers, try planting 1 plant per 6” wide pot, or 3 per 1’ wide pot. The deeper the pot the healthier the root system will be. 

Care

Gai lan
Gai lan, Chinese kale, and Chinese broccoli are just a few of this plant’s names. Source: Pockafwye

Chinese broccoli, sometimes known as Chinese kale, doesn’t need a whole lot of maintenance to get a nice full harvest. You can pop some seeds in the ground and wait until the plants begin to flower to harvest. 

Sun and Temperature

A cool-season plant, this plant does best in cooler temperatures – think 50-75 degrees. This means that depending on your zone, you can grow this vegetable in fall, winter, spring, and summer! It all depends on the average daily temperatures of the zone you’re in. 

During the cool season, you’ll want your plants in the sun for 6-8 hours a day, making sure that it doesn’t get so hot it begins to bolt. Before temperatures reach a steady 50 or so degrees a day, you can use a row cover to help insulate the plants from the cold and encourage faster growth. Don’t worry though, they can tolerate a frost or two. 

Water and Humidity

While spring and summer may bring rainstorms, it’s best to water your garden every week especially if there isn’t rain in the forecast. In order to prevent disease, water mid to late morning on a drip line. Your Chinese broccoli needs one inch of water a week, more if it’s supposed to get hot out. Be sure to protect your plants as well, by mulching around the base of the stalk. This mulch helps to retain water and can prevent bolting from hot weather. 

Soil

This early producing spring crop loves rich soil, good drainage, and a pH of 6.0-6.8. A loamy-sand to silty soil is best for this fast-producing Asian vegetable. Work rich compost or manure into the top 6 inches of soil before starting seeds or transplanting. Well-drained organic humus is what works best for these tender greens. Gai lan can survive in poor quality soil if compost is worked into it. A heavy feeder, organic compost, or thick mulch can make up for poor dirt.  

Fertilizing

A fast grower, Chinese broccoli, also known as Chinese kale needs a good deal of nutrients to grow. Before sowing seeds or transplanting seedlings into your garden, make sure that your soil has had rich compost worked into the top six inches. Additionally, at the time of planting, apply an even 10-10-10 fertilizer around your vegetable patch. 

After the seeds germinate and are 4 weeks old, apply a fertilizer high in nitrogen around the base of the stalks. Nitrogen aids in leaf development, which is key! 

Propagation

Chinese broccoli is such a quick-growing plant, that the only way to propagate it is by seed. This is pretty easy to do as the seeds have a very high germination rate. You can also grow your own seed by letting the plant complete its life cycle. After it flowers, the flower stalks produce seeds and get ready for the next year! 

Harvesting and Storing

Cooked Chinese broccoli
When cooked, Chinese broccoli is a real treat to eat. Source: Jun Seita

Chinese broccoli is a great cut-and-come-again crop. It can be used in stir-fries over the course of a few days, or fermented to make traditional Chinese vegetable side dishes! 

Harvesting

Gai lan is best harvested when the few first flowers begin to poke out from the center of the stalk. Cut the leaves and the stems about 8 inches from the top of the plant leaving a few leaves still attached to the stalk. This helps to encourage growth! You may just have another harvest in 1-3 weeks!  

Storing

Immediately after harvesting your Chinese broccoli, use or refrigerate your leaves. These thin plants tend to wilt somewhat quickly as the moisture leaves their leaves. In order to extend their shelf life, put your harvest in the fridge in high humidity in an unsealed plastic or paper bag. 

Alternatively, for long-term storage, Chinese broccoli can be pickled or fermented to make a traditional vegetable side dish in Chinese cuisine known as fermented mustard greens. 

Troubleshooting

Gai lan bundles
This lovely vegetable can be found bundled at Asian markets. Source: World to Table

Growing Chinese broccoli is fairly easy. With a short growing season, it can often be relatively pest and disease-free. 

Growing Problems

Chinese broccoli needs a cool season in order to thrive. It’s easy to plant while it’s cool out, but be sure that harvest time (5-7 weeks down the road) is also in the cool season. If not, you’ll find your plants bolting. This is a normal part of the Chinese broccoli life cycle, however, you want to avoid speeding up the life cycle as this means you can’t enjoy your harvest! To avoid this, sow your seeds after checking to make sure there are 5-7 weeks of cool weather ahead. 

Pests

Slugs and snails love the nutritious leaves of these plants and will often eat the tender parts of the plant while avoiding stalks. They’re more likely to start near the base of a stem and eat outwards. To kill, try putting down bait or setting out beer traps to catch these pesky guys!

Alternatively, cabbage loopers love to snack on the delicious leaves of this plant. Small little lime-colored caterpillars, these pests blend in with the color of the leaves and can kill young plants or maim older ones before they become moths. Try spraying Bacillus thuringiensis if you have a large population. For smaller infestations, you can easily pick the caterpillar off the leaf. 

Diseases

Damping off is a serious disease that can attack your Chinese broccoli while it’s still just a few inches tall. This soil-borne fungal disease will cause your stem to rot and shrink and will attack a plant’s root system as well. Damping off is actually a series of fungi and can kill whole trays of seedlings. Once your plants become infected, there is no way to cure it. However, it can be prevented with good soil drainage, air circulation, and using the biological fungicide Mycostop. 

Downy mildew can also attack your Chinese broccoli. This fungus attacks through wounds in the leaves and thrives in cool moist conditions. It appears as white or brownish spots on the upper portions of the leaf before turning a dark brown and killing the leaf and plant. While it’s tricky to eliminate, remove any damaged foliage from your plant. Spray the remainder with either a liquid copper fungicide or a product that uses mono and di-potassium salts of phosphoric acid.

Frequently Asked Questions

Chinese broccoli flowers
The white flowers of gai lan are actually quite pretty. Source: Pockafwye

Q: How long does it take to grow Chinese broccoli?

A: Depending on the variety of Chinese broccoli being grown, from seed to harvest takes 5-8 weeks. 

Q: Where is Chinese broccoli grown?

A: Chinese broccoli is grown all over the world. It grows wherever there are cool periods 5-7 weeks long with full sun in the temperature range of 50-75 degrees.


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