Brassica, Daikon, Perilla, Opo and Siberia Long Beans 

An immigrant family joins the local food scene 


Our Chi Garden is a small 1.5 acre ecological farm at the Just Food Community Farm in East Ottawa. We are certified organic with regenerative soil practices, inter-cropping, minimal tillage and consciously reducing our dependence on outside inputs. While we constantly learn from fellow farmers in Canada, we also find some traditional or new practices of soil fertility from Asia appealing. We apply fermenting techniques to composting tea. We place great emphasis on perennial crops such as goji berry greens, garlic chives, crones and sunchoke or crops that can easily reproduce from its own fallen seeds, such as most Asian varieties from brassica family.  

We also practice great tolerance to abundant naturally occurring greens such as wild amaranth, chicory green, wild purslane, pennycress, plantain, sow thistle green, shepherd’s purse, chickweed and dandelion green. Being constrained by labour availability, we learned to farm with the mindset not only of what we want our land to produce, but also what are the natural gifts from the land. 

We produce a diverse salad mix with more than 20 vegetables, herbs, and wild edibles from the global East and West. We passionately explore preservation methods, such as wild fermentation, using local harvest products. We sell at the Main Street Farmers Market on Saturdays and the Just Food Farm Stand on Sundays during the growing season. But arriving at this point in our lives has been a long journey – in many ways. 

Starting a new life in Canada 

In early spring of 2014, our small family of three – my husband Li Bo, our son Jerry, and I – landed in Toronto for a new beginning as immigrants. I came as a skilled worker with a specialization in environmental management, and a lengthy career in biodiversity conservation and sustainability education in the non-profit sector. Jerry, who was five at the time, had developed a severe allergy to the polluted air in Beijing where we were living.  

When we arrived to Ontario, Li Bo and I wanted to find a quiet place to live and recover, away from busy metropolitan areas. We had both studied and worked in the U.S. and traveled broadly. We have good language skills as newcomers, but as with all immigrants, we were uprooted from a familiar environment and had to re-establish ourselves in almost every way. We were staying with friends in Toronto for a few days when another friend offered us the use of a house in the small village of Mildmay, Bruce County, while we figured things out. Beijng, Toronto, Mildmay within a week!  

Exploring market gardening: Half farmer, Half-X lifestyle 

As environmental professionals, we had witnessed much damage to the natural world. In Canada, we dreamt of living a life close to nature, cultivating our own food, and recovering from physical and emotional exhaustion. We met many generous people who showed us around their farms, businesses, and way of living. In September 2014, retired sheep farmers Eugene and Ann invited us to live at their farm near Mildmay, where we had access to a parcel of land to try out market gardening and homesteading skills. Here we greeted the land and learned to use a tractor for the first time!  

We embarked on an intense learning journey. The first winter was Farm Start program training in Guelph, online resources from Cornell University, and Jean-Martin Fortier’s book, The Market Gardener! While Jerry attended grade 1, we did our ‘elementary home study’ baking, home preserving, woodworking, and snow-blowing (compliments of Lake Huron!).  Seed catalogues started arriving before Christmas and Eugene and Ann’s fruit cakes were baked and wrapped in rum-soaked towels. Our first holiday was a hopeful time to aspire to a half-farmer and half-X lifestyle. (This term was popularized by the Japanese inventor Naoki Shiomi. “Half and half” means half time growing food for the family and/or for sale, the other half on something else, using one’s natural abilities – “half-farmer, half-writer, half-NGO member, half designer”, etc.).  


Chi Garden – growing Asian vegetables 

Our Chi Garden in Mildmay opened in the Spring of 2015. Our first sale product was lettuce. I also baked croissants, made dumplings, and taught Asian cooking. In 2017 we moved to Ottawa to join Just Food’s Community Farm as participants in its Start-up Farmer Program. 2024 marks our 10th growing season here, where we grow 30 plus organic veggies. We also raise a small flock of chickens year-round. Our other Half-X now includes interpreter, organizer, caterer and fermenter. During the pandemic, I coordinated Ottawa’s Community Gardening Network at Just Food. 

We have never really liked the term “Asian vegetables”. Asia stretches from tropical islands to boreal forests, and it is misleading to define this vegetable diversity as Asian. So-called Asian vegetables can be species, subspecies, cultivars, varieties, morphotypes, probably with some shared origins.

In our garden, the Brassica rapa group (yuntai) includes napa cabbage, bok choy and tatsoi. B. rapa is a genetically diverse grouping with three sets of chromosomes – many possibilities!

Napa cabbage (the B. rapa Pekinensis group) is slow-growing but cold-hardy and keeps well in winter storage. It is also the main ingredient for cabbage kimchi. Bok Choy – a generic name (pak choy, tatsoi, choi sum, etc.) is in the B. rapa Chinensis group. Check with seed providers for Spring, Summer or Fall sowing varieties, and those that are less likely to bolt in your region. 

Our favourite Brassica oleracea is Gai Lan – Chinese broccoli (related to broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale and cabbage). Its fleshy stems and dark leaves make stir fry easy, and the white flowers are sweet. Brassica juncea, collectively called mustard green, is a staple in our garden and our fermentation kitchen. Bitterness is a sought-after, healthful taste in traditional food, as it helps with digestion, and balances other rich foods.

A gourd family vine – bitter melon Momordica charantia (karela in India) – is the best in this regard, believed to help with inflammation and diabetes. Asian grocers will have these seedlings for sale in the Spring. Allium tuberosum – perennial garlic chives are easy to establish and emerge in early Spring. They give many gifts including their edible flowerheads, an essential ingredient in kimchi, as well as making an awesome egg dish! Amaranth is a group of plants in the same family as spinach, beets and quinoa, producing edible and nutritious leaves. Look for callaloo, or the bright red variety of Amaranthus tricolor, which is beautiful in the garden and versatile in cooking (magenta colour broth anyone?). Amaranth is the epitome of resilience in food plants. 

Other easy varieties to grow are daikon, Korean mu radish, Thai basil, shiso, and perilla (Perilla frutescens). For the more adventurous grower, try veggies such as okra, Asian eggplants, Chinese pole beans (for pods that require full cooking), yard-long beans, edamame, luffa, opo, and kabocha squash. At Chi Garden, we grow our garden ecologically, which as a holistic approach, helps to prevent diseases and pests. We have permanent beds that are always covered by rotating crops, mulch, or geo-fabric ground cover, so our soil is covered year-round to prevent erosion, to solarize, and to build organic matter. We use row covers, especially for the choys – flea beetles love brassica so much! 

We save seeds for nearly 80% of what we grow. But Haitai Seeds (AgroHaitai Ltd) – a unique source of Asian (Oriental) vegetable seeds, is our go-to if we are looking for specialty seeds. Gaia, Urban Fresh Produce, and Cadence are our local organic seed and seedling providers for growing Asian varieties. 

Cooking with Asian veggies 

The diversity of Asian cooking is humbling. To cook vegetables the Chinese way, basic pantry items are soy sauce (Kikkoman, Lee Kum Kee), black vinegar, and rice wine. Aromatics include red Sichuan pepper (Zanthoxylum bungeanum), red chili pepper, garlic, and green onions, all of which can be grown in Ontario, and ginger, which will grow, but is hard to reach maturity in the Ottawa region.  

 Harvest and use existing garden crops in traditional way: fresh radish greens are not discarded, but rather enjoyed as raw or warm salad. Squash leaves are delicious for cooking. Sweet potato greens are the easiest to harvest – make a quick stir fry with garlic! Garlic scapes can be sauteed with pork strips (or tofu), with soy sauce and a touch of vinegar and sugar. 

Basic vegetable stir fry:  Prepare all ingredients first and use a heavy bottom pan such as cast iron pan, wok or dutch oven. Use medium to high heat until pot becomes very hot, then add oil. Quickly add aromatics, wait for aroma but do not burn, now add vegetables. Stir fry is fast, usually for a few minutes at most. Add salt late rather than early. To include soy sauce, it’s best to prepare the soy sauce mixture ahead (include vinegar, sugar, rice wine, chili oil… diluted with a few tablespoons of water). Adding one ingredient at a time won’t be practical when working with a sizzling super hot pan.  

For a saucier result, stir in more water and starch (potato and corn work well) to the soy sauce mixture to make a slurry. The heat will then thicken the sauce to coat everything. Stir frying is quick, with the flavour adjusted based on experience, smell and tasting. Add the optional mashed garlic at the final stage. Over-cooking is the enemy of a good stir fry! 


An Afterword: Being Immigrant Farmers in Canada  

As farmers and as members of the Asian community, we use our garden space and market tables for conversations about food cultures, community resilience, and our connected, healthy traditions. Many new Canadians we talk to miss food from their home countries. Food security for them is defined as having access not only to enough food, but also to culturally appropriate food. There are few immigrant farmers due to Canada’s immigrant policies, lack of support for new farmers, and the cultural stigmatization of farming. Furthermore, accessing land is a major challenge for both young Canadian and immigrant farmers. On this front, Just Food and National Farmers Union are wonderful sources of information, of which we are proud members. 


You can find us on Facebook and Instagram #chigarden2015. 


Sun Shan 

Chi Garden 

Blackburn Hamlet, Ottawa 

Growing and Enjoying Asian Vegetables