Growing Unusual Veggies
Written onMay 23 , 2014
Just because we live in northern New England doesn’t mean we have to subsist on carrots and potatoes. These familiar vegetables grow well for us despite our cool nights and relatively short summers. But so do tomatoes, a warm-climate vegetable, and other frost-sensitive vegetables like summer squashes, beans, and cukes. What we grow is largely what we know—and what our Grannies grew—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
I grow artichokes, piricicaba, kohlrabi, and plenty of other less common veggies that are more commonly found in California—or at a farmers’ market in New York City. You, too, might like to try a few new flavors in your garden this summer.
By now (early June) it’s too late to start artichokes from seed. I start mine in February, as they take a long time to reach maturity. But some garden centers sell them already started and ready to go in the ground.
Artichokes are big plants that require as much space as tomatoes; I plant them 24 inches apart. They need plenty of moisture and deep, rich soil. Before planting an artichoke, I work in a heaping shovel of compost and half a cup of organic bagged fertilizer. And if we get a dry spell, I water my artichokes to be sure their soil stays moist.
Artichoke leaves are a grayish-green, making artichokes pretty enough to plant in a flowerbed. The artichokes we can grow here will never be as large as the grocery-store varieties, though. Be sure to harvest before the petals on the buds get dry and tough. After you pick the first one, you might get three or more smaller ones as side shoots.
Perhaps the first President Bush, who stated his aversion to broccoli, would actually enjoy a couple of the broccoli relatives that I grow—piricicaba and Happy Rich. (Actually, I think he probably just suffers from OBS—overcooked broccoli syndrome.) Both of these broccoli relatives are sweet and delicious, and can be eaten straight from the plant—unlike broccoli raab, which is bitter if eaten raw. They are fabulous lightly steamed or sautéed. And the nice thing about them is that the leaves and stems are tasty, too.
You probably won’t find either for sale as plants, but they are fast growing and start easily from seed, either in the soil or in 6-packs in the house. Piricicaba seeds are found through Fedco Seed Cooperative.
Happy Rich, like piricicaba, does not form a big head the way broccoli will, but its flowers are plentiful and produce well into the fall, shrugging off frost. I get seeds from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Essentially, both of these plants forgo the head and start producing what we would call side-shoots on broccoli. But even if you miss harvesting some florets on time, they do not get bitter. Just pick them, eat them, and you’ll get more.
I’ve never had much luck growing celery. It has gotten tough and woody, or else the slugs have gotten to it. But a celery relative, celeriac or celery root, provides the same flavor and stores well all winter. Celeriac likes rich, moist soil—emphasis on moist. I start it indoors in flats and transplant it after danger of frost. Look for seedlings at garden centers, as it takes 95 days from time of transplant to maturity, so it’s too late to start by seed now. In the fall it handles frost well.
Celeriac develops into baseball-size globes, sitting on the surface of the garden with celery-like stalks and leaves. It makes a wonderful winter salad by grating it and mixing with grated carrot and apple in a vinaigrette sauce. It can be cooked and mashed with potatoes, or used in soups and stews. It stores well in a high-humidity location at 33 to 40 degrees.
Turnips are well known, but many cooks avoid them as too bitter. Unfortunately, the same brush has tarred rutabagas, which are delicious. Rutabagas store well and rarely suffer from any pests or diseases in the garden. Plant them by seed in the garden now and thin to 6 inches or so apart. They are fast growing and can easily develop into 1-pound veggies or more in the course of the summer. You can cook and mash them just like potatoes, or dice and serve in winter stews and soups.
Salsify and scorzonera are long, thin root crops with a somewhat nutty flavor. They need deep, loose soil, as they can grow 8 to 12 inches long. But each is only an inch or less in diameter, so they don’t produce much food per plant (compared to carrots or rutabagas, for example). Plant them directly in the garden and wait. Their leaves look like grass, so don’t pull them out by mistake. They are slow growing, so I harvest them late in the fall. These are great in turkey stuffing.
Among salad/cooking greens, think of trying orach. Seeds are hard to find—Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is the one place I’ve found them (rareseeds.com). Orach is a gorgeous, purple-leafed plant that can grow to 3 feet tall but is tastier when eaten smaller. It is in the goosefoot family, which includes many varieties of weeds but also spinach, beets, and quinoa.
If you let a few plants flower and go to seed, you will always have some volunteer plants in the garden, year after year. It has no special growing needs—it’s almost a weed, after all.
My favorite of the odd ducks of the vegetable world is kohlrabi, which looks a little like a space alien—a round, fat “root crop” that sits in the soil surface and has stems popping out of it, like arms with leaves. The vegetable is almost perfectly round and is actually a thickened stem. It comes in purple and green varieties. Eaten fresh in salads, it tastes something like a cucumber crossed with a radish. But it’s good in stir-fries or stews, too.
Plant kohlrabi seeds directly in the garden, approximatley 3 inches apart, and thin to 6 inches. It is in the cabbage family and grows fast; it’s ready for harvest in as little as eight weeks. Last year, I grew a variety called Kossak, which is an 80-day variety that gets huge (8 inches or more) and stores well. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, the developer of the seed, says it will store for four months. It needs plenty of moisture and, like most veggies, plenty of compost in the soil.
Hot peppers and eggplants are often a disappointment to northern gardeners. They would really rather be growing in Mexico. But you can increase your odds of success with a few easy tricks: First, let a greenhouse start your plants for you, but don’t put them into the ground until the soil is very warm (at least 60 degrees) and nighttime temperatures stay above 60 degrees. Then place dark-colored stones on the ground near your plants. These absorb heat during the day and serve as little radiators at night. And cover your plants with row cover. This lightweight agricultural fabric allows the plants to breathe but holds in a little extra heat. Never give peppers fertilizer or you will get big plants but little fruit. They like lean, sandy soil.
So go for it: Expand your gardening palette and you’ll be able to eat like a gourmet. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
Illustration by Meg Lucas