Highlights » Lifestyle » Vol. 33

Vegetables you didn’t think you could grow

By Henry Homeyer

dscn4267This year, as you plan your garden, why not choose some lesser-known veggies to see how they do for you? You might just be surprised how easy it is to grow kohlrabi or rutabagas ~ and how tasty they are. I grow those and several other kinds of vegetables that you might not have tried. Most are not terribly hard to grow. You could be the first on your block to grow artichokes!

Let’s start with sweet potatoes. Most New England gardeners don’t generally grow this vegetable, thinking that it’s a southern crop. It is, but you can grow it. The trick is to grow it under black plastic, which increases the heat. Sweet potatoes need good, rich soil, liberally amended with compost or aged cow manure.
Adequate moisture is key for growing sweet potatoes. Even if you leave an opening in the plastic for the plant, rain water probably won’t soak the soil enough. Run a section of soaker hose under the plastic and give it some water any time the soil seems dry. Soaker hose is available at garden centers and is basically a special kind of hose that oozes water very slowly, soaking the soil.

Rutabagas, like Rodney Dangerfield, don’t get the respect they deserve. They are easy to grow, rarely bothered by pests or diseases and can substitute for potatoes in the kitchen. They look a bit like turnips, which do have a strong flavor, but rutabagas are mild. I find they are great in stews ~ they don’t get mushy the way potatoes do when you reheat the stew several times.

Plant rutabagas by seed in mid-June, about 2 inches apart, and thin them to 6 inches apart for maximum production. Rutabagas can get big ~ a pound each or more ~ but do not get tough or less tasty, even when they get big. They grow best in soil that is near neutral on the pH scale and is rich in compost.

As far as I am concerned, growing celery is best left to the professionals. When I’ve tried growing it, the slugs loved it and the stalks were dry and stringy. But you can have that same celery flavor in your soups, stuffing and stews by growing celeriac, also known as celery root.

I start celeriac by seed in the house in late March or early April, but some better garden centers will offer plants already started. Celeriac loves moisture, so add compost to the soil to hold water and water the plants during dry times. Plant celeriac about 6 inches apart.

Artichokes are beautiful plants that look good in a flower garden, too. In California, they are perennials, producing year after year in deep, black soil rich with moisture. I have started them from seed, but one must start them early in March for best results. But a farm stand near me sells them in small pots for a couple of dollars each, so I just get them there instead.

Allow a 2- by 2-foot space, or more, for each artichoke plant. You will get one artichoke (which is really a flower bud) at the top of the plant, then side shoots with smaller artichokes after that ~ up to five more. None will be as big as the grocery store version. Be sure to pick them before they turn dry and open up.

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 they are good in stir fries or stews, too.

Plant kohlrabi seeds directly in the garden, about 3 inches apart, and thin to 6 inches. It is in the cabbage family (Brassica) and grows fast, ready for harvest in as little as eight weeks. Last year, I grew a variety called Kossak, which is an 80-day variety, but it gets to be 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.
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. They are slow-growing, so plant early and harvest late in the fall. These are great in turkey stuffing.

Of the salad/cooking greens, think of trying orach. Seeds are hard to find ~ Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is the only place I’ve found that has them (www.rareseeds.com). This is a gorgeous, purple-leafed plant that gets to be 3 feet tall and 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.

Last on my list of recommendations of things to try are peanuts. I grew them last year just for fun, which is mostly what I got ~ very few peanuts. They do better in places like Virginia, but Burpee Seeds sells seeds for them. They take a long time to grow; mine were listed as 120 days to harvest. After shelling, plant seeds 8 inches apart and 2 inches deep. They flower down low on the plants and then send out “pegs” that grow into the soil and produce the peanuts below the soil surface.

Gardening is supposed to be fun. For me, that means trying more than the usual veggies. So this year, get adventurous. Try kohlrabi, rutabagas or even an artichoke! You’ll be glad you did.

As a boy, Henry Homeyer spent his summers gardening in Spencer with his grandfather. He now lives in Cornish Flat, N.H., and is the author of four gardening books and a new children’s chapter book, Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet. Visit www.Gardening-Guy.com and www.henryhomeyer.com.

Henry Homeyer with his grandchildren, George and Casey.

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