Gai lan, also known as Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale, is a really cool veggie that has yet to make it into the fields of most hobby farmers. Known botanically as Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra, gai lan is a unique variety of the same plant species as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.
Like its cole-crop cousins, gai lan enjoys the cool weather of spring and fall, making it among the first crops to go into the garden each spring. It’s also very cold hardy, and in many climates, seeds sown into the garden in the early autumn will continue growing through most of the winter with a protective layer of floating row cover or the shelter of a cold frame.
Gai lan is a leafy green plant with edible stalks, leaves and flower buds. The leaves are a succulent, fleshy green, and the plant produces flower heads that look much like broccoli, only smaller and looser. When open, the flowers are white. To harvest, the finger-thick shoot tips are cut from the plants, much like rapini or broccoli raab, just before the flowers are ready to open.
The flavor of gai lan is a lot like broccoli, though it’s definitely sweeter and more mild. Its texture is deliciously tender. Gai lan is featured in many Chinese dishes, as well as cuisine from other Asian regions.
Growing Gai Lan
If you’d like to grow a crop of gai lan on your hobby farm, you can either start seeds indoors under grow lights in early winter, and then move the transplants outdoors as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring, or direct-seed gai lan right into the field in early spring once the soil can be worked. The plants are fast-growing and will produce their edible stalks in just six to eight weeks.
Gai lan seeds can also be planted in the late summer or early autumn for fall and winter harvests. In my Pennsylvania garden, I sow the seeds directly into the garden the last week of August.
Select a spot that receives full sun and give each plant plenty of room to grow. Even with regular harvests, the plants can reach a foot or more across. If you start the plants via direct seeding, be sure to thin the seedlings to allow room for each plant to reach its full mature size. The plants will continue to form new edible shoots until the weather grows too warm, so continue to harvest them on a regular basis for maximum production.
Bugs Be Gone
To prevent infestations of imported cabbage worms, cover your gai lan with a layer of floating row cover to prevent the adult cabbage worm butterflies from laying eggs on the plants, or use Bt-based organic pesticides to keep the little green worms in check.
If you’re looking to try something new-to-you and delicious in your garden this year, gai lan will not disappoint!