1 plant with all the leafy good­ness you need for win­ter

If you are miss­ing sum­mer’s salad greens, this is the plant for you.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS JENNY SOMERVELL

If you have ever opened a packet of mescalin greens from the su­per­mar­ket, chances are you have come across the bright green, finely-dis­sected leaves of mizuna (pro­nounced meezuna). For years I dis­missed this win­ter green, con­sid­er­ing it a sec­ond-rate filler. I was wrong. It is one of the most use­ful and fastest-grow­ing salad plants, grow­ing vir­tu­ally any­where, any­time, tol­er­at­ing heat, cold and wet soils. Any­thing ex­cept dry. It is one of the few veges in our gar­den that grows faster than the weeds.

New Zealand gar­dener and cook Mary Browne rec­om­mends grow­ing mizuna for a con­tin­u­ous sup­ply of de­lec­ta­ble greens, and in our Can­ter­bury win­ters, mizuna is our most re­li­able leafy green. Even in the cold­est months, it con­tin­ues to grow in our green­house, fill­ing the gaps when our other leafy greens wane. The feath­ery leaves are a good let­tuce sub­sti­tute, or a crisp, ten­der ad­junct to what­ever salad in­gre­di­ents are avail­able.

The flavour is mild, the tex­ture juicy and crunchy. The dark, choro­phyll-laden leaves con­tain min­er­als, beta-carotene, vi­ta­min C, fo­late and iron.

Mizuna is both heat and cold-tol­er­ant, hap­pily sur­viv­ing sub-zero tem­per­a­tures and snow in our southern gar­den. Even when sown in spring, it is one of the most bolt-re­sis­tant of the oriental bras­si­cas.

In sum­mer, the bushy clumps of glossy green, feath­ery leaves are sur­pris­ingly dec­o­ra­tive in­ter­spersed among brightly-coloured an­nu­als in a flower bed, as an edg­ing, or dot­ted among other veges and herbs. Un­like most cut­ting greens, mizuna re­tains its rosette shape and looks good, even with reg­u­lar cut­ting.

Mizuna is ac­tu­ally a bras­sica ( Bras­sica rapa subsp nip­posinica), evolv­ing from the prim­i­tive turnip. This may not sound promis­ing, but the flavour and ap­pear­ance bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to turnips.

It’s prob­a­bly Chi­nese in ori­gin, but the best va­ri­eties have been de­vel­oped in Ja­pan where it is know as mizu-na (wa­ter/juicy veg­etable) or kyo-na (Ky­oto greens).

At least 16 va­ri­eties are known, in­clud­ing at­trac­tive red-leaved forms. Hy­brid va­ri­eties are higher yield­ing with broader, less-ser­rated leaves. Clumps grow to about 23cm high and can spread to 45cm.

How to grow mizuna

Mizuna prefers tem­per­a­tures be­tween 8-18˚C, mak­ing it ideal for grow­ing in win­ter in an un­heated green­house. It seems very tol­er­ant of low light lev­els, grow­ing longer than most veg­eta­bles.

Green­house sow­ings can be made in late au­tumn and early win­ter and eaten when young and ten­der or left to be a pro­duc­tive win­ter head­ing crop. Another sow­ing in late win­ter in con­tain­ers can pro­vide plants for plant­ing out­doors in early spring. In ad­di­tion, seeds can be di­rect sown from spring through to au­tumn.

Plants can be grown as fast baby-leaf crops for a quick one-off har­vest, as a cut-and-come-again crop, or as ma­ture plants for fre­quent leaf pick­ing. We com­bine all three meth­ods.

What mizuna likes

Mizuna isn’t fussy. It tol­er­ates a wide range of soil types, as long as they are fer­tile and mois­ture-re­ten­tive. Ad­di­tional feed­ing is usu­ally not needed if lots of or­ganic mat­ter is in­cor­po­rated be­fore sow­ing or plant­ing.

I sow mizuna in rows and grad­u­ally thin se­quen­tially, ini­tially to 10cm apart, and then 20-45 cm apart, de­pend­ing on how big we want our fi­nal plants to be. These first thin­nings go straight into our sal­ads – well­washed roots and all – and are suc­cu­lent and ten­der.

Some­times I will also trans­plant a few else­where. If trans­plants are used, it is best to ei­ther trans­plant when they are very small, or sow into mod­ules. Any check in growth can re­sult in plants quickly run­ning to seed. Seedlings will be ready to plant out in 2-3 weeks from sow­ing.

Though mizuna is frost-tol­er­ant, spring and au­tumn-sown plants in cooler cli­mates will be faster grow­ing and pro­duce more ten­der greens un­der cloches. Sum­mer sow­ings, on the other hand, may ben­e­fit from light shade.

If plants do not ap­pear to be grow­ing rapidly, a liq­uid feed with sea­weed will boost them along nicely. Plants need to be kept well wa­tered, es­pe­cially in hot weather. Healthy plants are sel­dom trou­bled by pests.

To re­ju­ve­nate older plants, cut all the leaves to about 2-3cm above the ground, then liq­uid feed to boost new growth.

How to use mizuna

You can eat your first greens as soon as 16 days af­ter sow­ing, and any stage of growth can be har­vested from small seedlings to large plants. The younger and smaller the leaves, the more ten­der to eat. The leaves make an at­trac­tive gar­nish and even the flow­er­ing shoots area can be eaten. Older leaves can be fi­brous, es­pe­cially if lack­ing wa­ter.

In the West, mizuna is pop­u­lar as an off­sea­son salad veg­etable and the baby leaves have be­come com­mon in mescalin. In the East, mizuna is treated like other oriental greens, ei­ther steamed or stir-fried, alone or with other veg­eta­bles, meat, poul­try or fish. Tra­di­tion­ally it is cooked in soups, or pick­led, or cooked in sukiyaki-like dishes. Stalk pieces are pick­led and served as an ap­pe­tiser or a pi­quant bite with a cold beer.

We tried it stir-fried with mush­rooms, onion and gar­lic. De­li­cious! It would seem there is room in the West for more ad­ven­tur­ous cook­ing with this ver­sa­tile green. Our con­clu­sion: when all other salad plants in the gar­den suc­cumb – and you can count on it in win­ter – this stal­wart of gar­den greens will not fail you.

Pur­ple mizuna.

Red and green leafed mizuna.

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