Many people may never have heard of chinsaga or African cabbage before, but it is a staple crop in Kenya and a famine food for many other cultures. What exactly is chinsaga? Chinsaga (Gynandropsis gynandra/Cleome gynandra) is a subsistence vegetable found in tropical to subtropical climates from sea level into the higher elevations of Africa, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and many others regions. In the ornamental garden, we may actually know this plant as African spider flower, a relative of cleome flowers. Keep reading for more information on growing chinsaga vegetables.
African cabbage is an annual wildflower that has been introduced in many other tropical to subtropical parts of the world where it is often considered an invasive weed. Chinsaga vegetable can be found growing along roads, in cultivated or fallow fields, along fences and irrigation canals and ditches.
It has an erect, branching habit that usually attains heights of between 10-24 inches (25-60 cm.). The branches are sparsely leafed with 3-7 oval leaflets. The plant blooms with white to rose colored blooms.
Because African cabbage is found in so many places, it has a plethora of whimsical names. In English alone, it may be referred to as African spider flower, bastard mustard, cat’s whiskers, spider flower, spider wisp and wild spider flower.
It is high in several nutrients, including amino acids, vitamins and minerals and, as such, is an important part of the diets of many Southern African people. The leaves are around 4% protein and also have antioxidative properties.
African cabbage leaves can be eaten raw but are usually cooked. The Birifor people cook the leaves in sauce or soup after washing and chopping them. The Mossi people cook the leaves in couscous. In Nigeria, the Hausa eat both the leaves and seedlings. In India, the leaves and young shoots are eaten as fresh greens. People in both Chad and Malawi eat the leaves as well.
In Thailand, the leaves are commonly fermented with rice water and served as a pickle condiment called phak sian dong. The seeds are also edible and are often used in place of mustard.
Another chinsaga vegetable use is not culinary. Because the leaves have antioxidative properties, they are sometimes used as a medicinal herb to aid people with inflammatory diseases. The roots are used to treat fever and juice from the root to treat scorpion stings.
Chinsaga is hardy to USDA zones 8-12. It can tolerate sandy to loamy soils but prefers well-draining soil with a neutral to basic pH. When growing chinsaga vegetables, be sure to select a site that has full sun with plenty of room to spread.
Sow seeds on the soil’s surface or lightly cover with soil in the spring indoors or in a greenhouse. Germination will take place in 5-14 days at 75 F. (24 C). When the seedlings have their first couple sets of leaves and soil temperatures have warmed, harden them off for a week prior to transplanting outside.
Cabbage and Kale are cool-season vegetables high in nutrients, low in calories, and very tolerant of frost. They are used in many of the world's cuisines -- think egg rolls, sauerkraut, and stuffed cabbage, to name just a few! -- and some varieties are ideal as ornamental annual plants. They come in a wide range of colors, head shapes, and flavors, so you are certain to find a favorite among the many delicious (and beautiful) varieties!
When you're deciding what variety of Cabbage or Kale to plant in your garden, your decision will be mainly based on your taste and storage needs. Large-headed late Cabbages usually store well and are good for cooking, proving especially appropriate for turning into sauerkraut. Savoy and conical types are more tender and therefore good for slaws and salads, while Chinese cabbage is heat tolerant and quite versatile -- it's delicious cooked or raw! As far as choosing a Kale, green ones tend to be sweeter while red varieties are somewhat more appealing to the eye. Red Kale also contains anthocyanins, an antioxidant!
When to Start Cabbage & Kale Seeds
Cabbage seeds are best started indoors eight to ten weeks before the last frost, at a temperature of 70 to 75 degrees F. If you want a fall crop, sow outdoors in midsummer. In zone 8 and warmer, if you want a winter crop of Cabbage, sow outside in early fall.
Expect germination in 10 to 14 days.
How to Start Cabbage & Kale Seeds
Sow your Cabbage seeds at a depth of 4 times the size of the seed, or ½ inch deep, in a sterile starting mix and water thoroughly. Once the seeds have sprouted, be sure to keep the soil lightly moist, and feed them with a liquid fertilizer at half strength every two weeks.
Make sure the plants receive plenty of light -- fluorescent light for around 14 to 16 hours a day is also ideal for the fastest growth. You will want to keep the seedlings just a few inches below the light so they don't“stretch”and get“leggy". If you don't have fluorescent lighting, a south-facing window will do just fine.
Chinese Cabbage and Kale do well direct sown into the garden. In cool-weather climates, other Cabbages can be started outdoors as well, up to four weeks before the last frost date. If you want a fall crop, sow seeds in midsummer.
To conserve seeds, group 3 or 4 together at the desired plant spacing instead of the traditional method of sowing in continuous rows. Water well and make sure the topsoil stays moist, especially if planting during the drier midsummer. Once your seedlings have reached several inches and have at least two sets of true leaves, pull up all but the strongest one in each group.
Harvest is usually within 50 to 90 days from sowing, depending on the variety.
Once the seedlings have two sets of true leaves, you'll need to start the“hardening off”process. Do this by setting them outdoors in a lightly shaded area for an hour or two. The next day, give them a longer visit outside until they remain outdoors overnight, still in their pots. Naturally, if a cold spell hits, bring them indoors again to wait for the temperature to rise.
Plant out as soon as the soil can be worked in spring, setting the plants at least 8 inches apart, in rows spaced 24 to 36 inches apart. (Exact spacing depends on the mature size of the plant.) Site your Cabbages in full sun in a rich, fertile, moist, well-drained soil, and feed them with 5-10-5 (or higher) fertilizer or nitrate of soda. Fertilize when first planting out and then every 4 weeks.
Growing Tips for Cabbage & Kale
Pests and Problems to Watch For
Aphids and cabbage loopers are some of the most common pests you will find bothering your Cabbage and Kale.
Rotate your crops to avoid soil-borne diseases.
Although beets prefer growing in cooler temperatures, they still need at least 6 hours of sun to thrive. Beets grow best in well-draining rich, loose soil. Choose smaller, rounded varieties of beets if your soil is heavy or shallow.
Good companion plants for growing beets include bush beans and onions. Beets and kohlrabi are good companions because beets draw nourishment from below the soil while kohlrabi takes nourishment from the top layer of the soil. Avoid planting beets in areas previously sown with Swiss chard or spinach.
Beets interplanted with onions, broccoli and spinach
Same garden bed about a month later