Winter Leafy Veg

Full of flavour, easy to grow and good for you – let us sow some green, winter leafy veg!

While we use the term ‘Asian greens’ to refer to some leafy green vegetables, it is a difficult subject to classify exactly. Firstly, because each green is called something different in a different part of Asia. And also because some are not only ‘greens’ as we would identify them – like spinach – but also the green tops of root vegetables like radishes. The easiest way to record them is to call them all Asian vegetables. Today, we are discussing the most common leafy green Asian vegetables that we can grow from seed in South Africa and how to use them in the kitchen. Let’s take a look at some winter leafy veg!

Chinese cabbage

Chinese cabbage is milder and sweeter than regular cabbages. This vegetable is also known as wombok or chihilli, amongst many others. It becomes tender and juicy when cooked.

It takes around 80-85 days from sowing seed to harvest. As with other brassicas, Chinese cabbage likes fertile soil with plenty of compost and organic fertiliser added at planting in a full sun position. Sow in seed trays and transplant when the eedlings are 10cm high, 45cm apart and in rows 60cm apart. Alternatively, sow directly into prepared soil 5cm deep. Keep the plants well-watered but not waterlogged throughout the growing season. They will tolerate light frost.

Look out for slugs on these cabbages and remove by hand or trap with beer traps. To harvest, cut the heads off high, leaving the base of the plants intact to allow the heads to regrow.

Chinese cabbage has many uses in the kitchen. It can be eaten raw or cooked. The most common usage of this cabbage is to make kimchi, but it can also make a great slaw salad, an addition to noodle dishes with a fragrant broth or used as a wrap for tasty fillings.

READ MORE: Get more tips on how to grow Chinese Cabbage

Mustard Greens

Often referred to as just leaf mustard, the distinct strong  taste of the leaves, if not overcooked, is an asset to stir fries, soups and salads. They also make very good microgreens for a hot mustard flavour. 

Like other brassicas, mustard greens do better in the cooler months. They will grow in full sun and in partial shade and will mature in 35 – 65 days. Plant into rich soil that has compost and fertiliser added and keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. There will be no need to feed the plants before harvesting if the soil is well-prepared beforehand. Harvest the leaves when they are still young – old leaves will be tough and bitter. 

If you want to gather the seed for using in the kitchen and drying for storage, leave the plants to flower and go to seed. Once the seed pods start to turn brown and leaves of the plants start to yellow, the pods can be harvested and placed in paper bags to gather the small seed. This seed can be used fresh, or it can be dried for storing. Make sure to harvest the seed before the seed pods burst open.


Kale is not often on an Asian greens list, but should be mentioned due to its cold-hardy nature and ease of growing in the colder months of the year. In fact, a little frost will make the leaves sweeter.

It is highly nutritious, low in calories and high in fibre. Kale is also very versatile in the kitchen and can be prepared in many ways, fresh or cooked.

Kale likes fertile soil with added compost and organic fertiliser. It grows in full sun as well as in partial shade. It needs regular water and monthly feeding with a nitrogen-rich fertiliser to promote good-eating leaves.

Sow in autumn and plant out 6 to 8 weeks before the first frost. Start seed in seed trays and transplant once plants are 10cm high (two true leaves). Space plants 45 to 50cm apart and in rows 60cm apart.

In cooking, use the leaves whole, chopped, or shredded. They are delicious when sautéed in olive oil with garlic and chilli. Use them in stews, curries, and broths. You can also use the leaves as wraps, just add a filling.


Microgreens are the perfect way to get lots of different flavours into a dish without much effort. The seed is sown all at once. All the little seeds will each have a different flavour, some mild and some popping hot. They are perfect for adding to roast vegetables, sandwiches with mild flavours like cream cheese, eggs and salmon. A salad can be considered naked without the benefit of a few microgreens.

Sow microgreens in trays with seedling mix. You can sow them in lines to distinguish between each of them or go for potluck and sow broadly across the tray. Cover with a layer of vermiculite and water with a gently spray nozzle so as not to wash the seeds into a corner. Cover with a propagator or a plastic bag until the seeds start to germinate in around 8 – 10 days and then keep in a warm sheltered spot to grow on. Harvest as soon as they are tall enough to cut off with a pair of scissors. Keep watering daily and keep out of direct sunlight.

Bok Choy

Also known as pak choi, pok choi and Chinese cabbage – yes, confusing – these greens do not form heads but rather have rounded fleshy white bases that sprout into soft green leaves at the ends. It has a mild, peppery taste that fits perfectly between the taste of cabbage and mustard leaves. They are tender, especially the baby bok choy, and can be eaten fresh in salads or stir fried, braised, sautéed and added to soups.

Grow bok choy in a sunny spot in soil that is well-draining with added compost and a balanced fertiliser added at planting. Bok choy is also frost-hardy so it will grow in the months when not much else does. However, in temperatures below 10°C and in extreme frost they tend to bolt as soon as temperatures increase. Sow seed in autumn in temperatures ranging from 15°C – 25°C. Space the plants 20 x 30cm apart and water well. Add a mulch to keep the soil moist. The plants need regular water but should not be waterlogged. The seeds will germinate in 7 – 14 days and the plants will grow to 25 – 35cm high. Harvest baby bok choy in 30 days and mature plants in 60 days. Take the whole plant from the garden and cut off the roots to prepare your dishes.

Winter Leafy Veg Recipes

Sarson ka Saag

This Indian curry dish has mustard greens (Sarson) as the main ingredient. But it can also be made using other greens, such as spinach or beet greens. It is served with flatbreads.


  • About 125g mustard greens
  • 60g spinach leaves
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 green chilies, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 piece of ginger – 3cm, grated
  • 1 tomato, peeled and chopped
  • Handful cashews, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 1 tablespoon cornflour
  • Salt


In a large pot, add the oil, chillies, garlic, ginger, tomato, cashews, coriander and turmeric. Cook gently for a few minutes, until the flavours are released. Wash the greens and add to the pot. Add a little water on the bottom to stop it from sticking and cover with a lid. Simmer for 1 hour. Use a stick blender to blend the ingredients and then add the garam masala and thicken with cornflour with a little water added. Season with salt and cook out the flour for a few minutes and allow the mixture to thicken. Serve with flatbreads.

Chinese cabbage wraps with fillings

The shape of these cabbage leaves make them ideal to use as wraps. The wraps are then packed into a pot or an oven dish, and stewed in stock before serving.

Here are some ideas for fillings:

Onion, garlic, mushrooms, beef mince or chopped steak, uncooked rice, parsley, tomato purée and salt and pepper. Simmer in beef stock until the rice is cooked and the filling tender.

Beef mince, onion, dill, parsley, lemon juice, rice simmered in stock and served with a lemon sauce.

Prawns, carrots, mushrooms and noodles stewed in vegetable stock.

Pork mince, breadcrumbs, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, fresh coriander and lemon zest, stewed in vegetable stock.

Braised bok choy with garlic and soy sauce

This quick and easy side dish will go well with any type of fish, meat or poultry, or add to a poke bowl with rice, beans and other greens for a vegetarian option.


  • 3-4 bok choy, washed and sliced vertically
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • Few drops sesame oil
  • Pinch chilli flakes


Add the oil to a frying pan and cook the onion on low heat until tender. Add the garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil and then add the bok choy. Toss for a few minutes to coat the vegetables and then cover and simmer for 5 – 7 minutes until cooked through but still crunchy. Turn a few times during the cooking and serve hot.

READ MORE: Make these delicious noodles with seafood, chicken and bok choy

The Gardener