One of the joys of gardening is to try something new each year. Most good vegetable gardens center around the gardener's favorites. Yet it can be both interesting and educational to try less common, more unique vegetables to tax your gardening skills and tease your taste buds. Conversely, unusual vegetables may not live up to your expectations at times and should not be the main focus of your food-production efforts.
For those who like salads and are interested in trying something different to add to lettuce and other salad mainstays, there are several plants to consider. One is radicchio which also goes by the name of Italian chicory. It bears deep red leaves which have white veins and, if nothing else, adds color to salads. Radicchio has the reputation of having a slightly bitter taste which intensifies as the season grows hotter. Therefore, it should be started very early for a spring crop or grown as a fall crop so that its small heads mature as the weather becomes cooler. Other than its sensitivity to weather, it is grown in the same manner as lettuce.
Gardeners who want greens quickly may select a few plants which normally can be harvested about six weeks after seeding. These include arugula, also known as roquette or garden rocket; Malabar (climbing) spinach; and an upland cress that is called peppergrass, or curled cress. Arugula grows best in the cool weather of spring and fall. Leaves of both arugula add a spicy, pepper-like taste to salads and is prized for its health benefits as well as its unique taste. High in dietary fiber, arugula also is a good source of antioxidants and glucosinolates which have been shown to reduce the risk of developing certain forms of cancer.
Malabar spinach, or basella, produces salad greens somewhat similar in appearance to spinach. Unlike spinach, it is very heat tolerant and can provide salad greens throughout the summer. It is a vigorous climbing vine that may achieve a height of six feet when allowed to grow on a trellis. Plants can be started from seeds indoors, but should not be planted outdoors until the soil has warmed and the danger of frost has past. Its taste has been likened to that of mild Swiss chard.
Peppergrass is the common name given to several members of the plant genus Lepidium. Species of the latter are native to many parts of the world, including North America. Its leaves have a pleasant, spicy flavor and can be eaten raw in salads or cooked. A member of the cabbage plant family, it grows best in cool weather. This salad green can be used as a small plantlet (microgreen) only 10 days following planting.
One of the more interesting vegetables in appearance, Romanesco appears to be broccoli (or cauliflower) that has been visited by aliens. Its inflorescence is chartreuse green in color and "self-similar" in morphology. The latter refers to the whole having the same shape as its parts. Closely related to broccoli and cauliflower, its buds (or curds) are comprised of smaller buds arranged in a logarithmic spiral. Like other members of the cabbage family, it prefers cool growing conditions and has a flavor described as delicate and nutty.
Some unusual vegetables may not live up to their names and, unless the gardener knows what to expect, may be disappointing. One such example is the vine peach. The latter is a vining plant related to melons and cucumbers. Although it produces fruits about the size of a peach with a light orange color, they are nothing like a peach in flavor. Vine peach is not good when consumed for fresh eating but is useful for making preserves, marmalades and chutneys. Gardeners often are similarly surprised after planting lemon cucumber. The cucumbers from this plant are about the size of a lemon and develop a yellow color. Their flavor, however, it that of a cucumber and not a lemon.
Some unusual vegetables have been around for a long time but, because of changes in availability or consumer preference, they disappear only to return later. Two examples in this category are Black Aztec corn and French horticultural bean. Black Aztec corn can be eaten as corn on the cob when immature. However, when the kernels mature, they turn a deep blue-black color. This type of corn was prized by the Aztecs for making corn meal and is gaining popularity as a novelty.
French horticultural beans are semi-vining in growth habit, but usually are allowed to grow as a bush. The pods are splashed with red and yellow flecks. The beans themselves are speckled with white and red, making them very colorful. French horticultural beans usually are consumed as young, immature beans shelled from the pod. They also can be used as dry beans and are said to have a nut-like flavor.
While scanning seed companies who advertise on the internet or checking seed racks in stores, you are sure to find other unique vegetables that you might be tempted to try. Spaghetti squash, banana melon, ground cherry and many types of Oriental vegetables are being planted more and more. While gardeners should not ignore their old favorites, giving new vegetables a try can be rewarding.
REVISED: March 6, 2020