Gardening: Chinese veg: now we're spoilt for choys: Delicious, crisp beansprouts and oriental brassicas can be grown at home. Anna Pavord meets a man who has learnt about them the hard way

FOOD fashions of the latter half of the 20th century have changed faster than you can mix a marinade. I rattled my first pans during the Robert Carrier revolution, when every recipe needed either a pint of wine or cream, or both. The next counter-coup brought the bean sprout to power.

That is where Eric Marshall came in, not as a cook but as a grower. He farms several hundred acres of 'the moss' at Glazebury, a village just off the M62 Manchester-Liverpool road. His land is fine, black and expensive, perfect for growing vegetables.

For years, Mr Marshall had grown the traditional crops of the area: lettuce, radish, celery. Then one of the buyers for the big supermarkets introduced him to bean sprouts. Bean sprouts, he said, were the crop of the future.

At that stage, bean sprouts were grown almost entirely by the Chinese, using methods unchanged for centuries. Mr Marshall visited a group of five families in Liverpool, who lived, worked and slept with their bean sprouts, which they grew in large dustbins in cellars. The crop was quick - four days from bean to sprout - but needed constant attention.

Beans germinating in large quantities generate a great deal of heat. Without constant douches of water to cool them, the sprouts would rot before they were ready to harvest. The Chinese lived with their crops so that they could provide regular attention.

Mr Marshall built a room to experiment with various automated ways of producing bean sprouts. First his crop was too spindly. 'I had automatic irrigation, but I learnt that it hadn't to be a spray, but a deluge,' he says. Then he had difficulty in buying seed that was free of fungal disease. But for a short time, until everyone else caught up and the bottom dropped out of the market, bean sprouts provided a good living: 'Definitely my most profitable crop.'

Now bean sprouts are produced in six-storey factories that turn out 50 tons a day. And, while anyone can build a bean sprout plant, Mr Marshall had an asset that was not so easily replicated - his land. By this time, he had met and dealt with a number of Chinese businessmen and discovered another gap in the market: leafy Chinese brassicas, pak-choi, choy sum and kai choy, equivalent to our cabbages and broccoli.

For the past 18 years or so, at least 12 acres of his productive land has been turned over to what Covent Garden traders call 'queer gear'.

To stop bolting, which can be a problem with leafy greens, Mr Marshall tries to grow his plants smoothly, without check. This is easier said than done. Adverse weather conditions - heat, drought, cold and early frosts - have a dire effect. Low temperatures when seeds are germinating and lack of moisture as plants are growing are the most likely reasons for bolting. Harvesting must also be prompt. These are not crops that stand long in one state.

Little and often is the key to sowing. Mr Marshall sows twice a week at the beginning of the season, working up to three times a week by midsummer. The first crops are raised in polytunnels, and as the weather warms up, he sows directly outside.

In ideal conditions, pak-choi can be ready to pick six weeks after sowing, so there is still time to sow in the garden. Mr Marshall gets two crops a season from much of his land, protecting the early outdoor plants with a cover of woven polypropylene film. This is a technique that gardeners can also use to advantage. The film, sometimes called a floating mulch, warms the soil and protects crops from sudden frosts.

Choy sum can have a slightly longer growing season - between 60 and 80 days. Like the rest of this group, choy sum needs to be grown quickly if it is to be tender rather than stringy.

The hardest thing for amateur gardeners is to find good seed. There are big differences in the performance of pak-choi, choy sum and the rest, depending on where in China they come from. Seed from central and northern China is more likely to perform in English gardens.

Despite his success, Mr Marshall thinks that this will be the last year he grows oriental vegetables. The Chinese are beating him at his own game, buying up small market gardens, particularly around the Spalding area in Lincolnshire, and growing crops entirely under glass. 'They are very industrious. I can't compete,' he says.

Fortunately, amateur gardeners do not need to. Sow these Chinese vegetables in shallow drills on well-prepared ground. Scatter the seed thinly along the drill, or sow in groups of three or four about 4in apart in the row. Thin the seedlings as they grow. The easiest way to do this is by nipping them off at ground level so that you do not disturb the roots of the seedlings that are being left in situ. Keep the crop well watered. Unfortunately, cabbage root fly is just as partial to foreign brassicas as it is to English ones. Take precautions.

You can also grow pak-choi and other Chinese brassicas as a seedling crop, mixed with other oriental vegetables such as mizuna and mustard. Joy Larkcom, who pioneered the growing of Chinese vegetables in this country, calls the mix Oriental Saladini, and you can buy this in packets ready to sow. Late summer and autumn sowings, in wide shallow drills, are useful since they provide a long succession of cut- and-come-again leaves for winter salads.

Pak-choi (95p), choy sum (Chinese flowering cabbage, 70p), kai choy (Chinese mustard, 80p) and oriental saladini ( pounds 1.25) are available from Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Pantlings Lane, Kelvedon, Essex, CO5 9PG (0376 572456). Essential reading for anyone interested in growing Chinese vegetables is Joy Larkcom's Oriental Vegetables (John Murray pounds 16.95).

(Photograph omitted)

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