Asian Vegetable Seeds
Autumn in the Kitazawa Test Garden
Story by Helen Krayenhoff | Photos by Scott Peterson
Meet Maya Shiroyama, current owner of Kitazawa Seed Company. Established in Oakland in 1917, Kitazawa specializes in seeds for traditional Asian vegetables and also introduces newly bred varieties for home gardeners and commercial growers.
Seed producers spend years trialing and acclimating plants while learning how best to grow these vegetables in a farm setting. Maya’s home garden is a place where she can test the viability and quality of her offerings. She wants to see whether the plants live up to the virtues claimed by the seed developer. For example: Is the flavor good? Is the plant hardy in our climate? Is there a high seed germination rate? Will it color up consistently? And so on. It’s essential that the variety perform well before Maya will list it in her catalogue.
Microgreen growers use a huge amount of seed, so even a small saving in cost can substantially improve profitability in a competitive market. They want plants that germinate and grow rapidly so they can quickly harvest and reseed them. Thus the percentage of seeds that germinate must be very high.
PURPLE PAK CHOI
Vegetables have a fickle fashion world of their own. Right now red and purple colors are hot with microgreen and baby leaf growers as well as home gardeners and landscapers using edibles. Maya has learned that pak chois are one vegetable where the red/purple leaf color remains quite stable, although germination temperatures have an effect, and some plants’ pigment will darken when the weather cools. This is important for microgreen and baby leaf growers but less crucial for home gardeners.
In the upper row of this trial planting is a hybrid purple pak choi that didn’t color up well, so it was rejected. Some hybrids are distributed before the variety is stable—meaning that every plant doesn’t look the same. This is fine for restaurants and home gardeners but not for the commercial market, where standardization rules.
CRIMSON TIDE MUSTARD
The frilly-leaved mustard variety in the lower row here is one Maya trialed for microgreen growers, who appreciate a seed that’s less expensive than the popular Ruby Streaks mustard. The pretty leaves add nice texture and color to baby leaf mixes, too. In the home garden, this variety is beautiful and makes a delicious addition to salads. Pick the outer leaves and new ones will sprout from the center of the plant.
Bred in South Korea, this red kale is rapidly gaining popularity throughout the farm and gardening worlds in part for its anthocyanin pigment (an antioxidant), which creates the color. Equally important to Maya (and many others concerned with world plant diversity) is that this variety is the first open-pollinated red kale available in the seed trade. Unlike hybrids, open-pollinated plants produce seeds that result in similar plants when grown the next year. Maya continues to push seed growers to produce more open-pollinated options.
Below: Maya’s recently departed dog, Mon Amie, sniffs some Gynera (also known as Okinawan spinach). Customers request seed for this plant when they return from trips to Asia, where it grows everywhere along the roadsides. Unfortunately this cold-sensitive succulent vegetable is not grown from seed and must be propagated by cuttings. Prepared fresh, it imparts a delicious salty taste to dishes such as salads or stir fries; In Korea it is served with hot pepper sauce. Some Asian markets here ship it in from Southern California during the summer.
Maya Shiroyama has been a constant presence within the local Asian vegetable scene, supporting and mentoring Bay Area farmers and chefs. Her annual seed catalogue is full of helpful descriptions of common and not-so-common Asian vegetables the home gardener might try. August through October is a good time to start many winter greens, so think about how beautiful some of these plants will look in your garden and be inspired as you learn more about what seed developers have to offer. ♦
Helen Krayenhoff is an East Bay illustrator and writer attracted to plant and food subjects. She is also co-owner of Kassenhoff Growers, a certified organic plant nursery based in Oakland. kassenhoffgrowers.com, helenkrayenhoff.com, @helen_krayenhoff
Photographer and videographer Scott Peterson has lived in the Bay Area for over 25 years and in Oakland for the past 12. During this time, he’s witnessed the explosion of food culture in the East Bay, and he’s happy to be involved with it as a photographer for magazines, books, cookbooks, and blogs. “It’s exciting. And certainly makes my commute easier.” scottpetersonproductions.com