Cauliflower ‘Cheddar.’ Photo: Cynoclub, depositphotos
Surprise your family by growing something a bit unusual to put on their plate.
By Larry Hodgson
When we prepare the list of the vegetables we intend grow in our gardens for the season, we discover . . . a lot of repetition. The same vegetables we grew last year, and the year before. The same vegetables that our parents and even our grandparents grew. Of course, these are often more productive and disease-resistant varieties of well-known veggies, but still, if you take the “improved variety” factor out of the equation, they’re still the same ol’ tomatoes, lettuces, radishes, beans, peppers, etc., that we’ve all been growing since forever.
So, what would you think about experimenting with something new this year? Sure, do grow your old favorites, the ones you know the whole family loves, but save yourself a bit of space for at least one out-of-the-ordinary veggie. Maybe you’ll discover something really wonderful!?
Here are 6 of these not-so-everyday vegetables you might like to try.
1. Orange Cauliflower
Brassica oleracea botrytis ‘Cheddar’
This is a true cauliflower and tastes just like cauliflower (it in no way tastes like cheddar cheese!), but its orange color tells you something special about it. It is, in fact, extra rich in beta carotene, an orange plant pigment that our bodies turn into vitamin A. It contains about 25% more of it than white cauliflower.
Unlike the other vegetables featured here, all of which have histories lost in the sands of time, orange cauliflower is a modern hybrid. It was developed from a mutant cauliflower found in a field of white cauliflower in Ontario in 1970. It took over 40 years of careful breeding to develop the true orange variety we know today.
Do note that the orange cauliflower is not a GMO! (It seems every time I write about a “hybrid vegetable,” I get immediate backlash from people convinced it is a “Frankenplant”!) The orange cauliflower was obtained by conventional hybridization, transferring pollen from the flower of one variety to the flower of another. So, it was created in the same way humans developed the other vegetables we eat. And that includes heirloom vegetables, which are also hybrids, just older ones.
Easier to grow than classic cauliflower (particularly because it doesn’t need to be blanched by tying its leaves together), orange cauliflower adds vibrant color to a vegetable that was really quite mundane-looking. Just grow it like a traditional cauliflower, sowing it in the spring in a sunny location for harvest in the fall.
2. Dinosaur Kale
Brassica oleracea sabellica ‘Lacinato’
Dinosaur kale is actually nothing new. It’s a type of kale that has been cultivated in Tuscany for centuries and offered under the name Lacinata kale or Tuscan black kale (calvalo nero in Italian). However, it was pretty much ignored outside that region until recently. It has regained its letters of nobility since some brilliant media person (no, it wasn’t me!) began to call it dinosaur kale. And indeed, its thick, narrow leaves, gray green and covered with wartlike bumps, do indeed suggest a sauropod’s tail.
Its popularity has been further boosted by its health values. It’s richer than many other kales in vitamins (A, B, C, E and especially K), in minerals (iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and many others) and antioxidants. And chefs love it, considering its flavor more refined and sweeter than other kales. I’ve even heard it called the “darling of the culinary world!”
It’s a very upright kale, with a thick central stalk. In most home gardens, it will reach 3 feet (90 cm) over the summer; even taller in mild climates where the growing season is longer. You can harvest it all at once in the fall (its flavor is improved by a frost or two), but if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself harvesting it all through the summer until the snows of winter, picking off the lower leaves 2 or 3 at a time. It looks great mixed in with other vegetables in your “designer vegetable garden.”
What I liked best about dinosaur kale was the ease with which I was able to trick the grandkids into eating it. I showed them my dinosaur kale in the garden, had them touch it and convinced them they had to eat it while roaring like a dinosaur. Possibly there was a suggestion it would make them strong like a dinosaur: I’m not sure. It made for a few noisy meals, but suddenly they were eating kale and who can complain about that?
It grows in the sun in any rich soil and is easy to grow from seed or nursery-purchased plants. It is very prolific, producing healthy leaves all summer long. Simply harvest a few lower leaves at a time, leaving the head to continue growing. In late fall, with its “trunk” bare from continuous harvesting and its top still full of leaves, it will look like a small palm tree!
Dinosaur cabbage can be used in salads, in any recipe that calls for cabbage or kale and is also perfect for healthy smoothies.
Apios graveolens rapaceum
Celeriac is just a variant of celery, with a swollen stem base in the shape of a large bumpy bulb instead of just thick-petioled leaves. It’s really nothing new, yet I doubt if one gardener in 30 has ever tried growing it. It’s just one of many vegetables that are “out there,” but receiving little gardener attention.
At least, that used to be the case.
It seems that the world’s top chefs have discovered this vegetable as well and their promotion of celeriac through their YouTube and Instagram recipes is finally stimulating the interest of gardeners.
Once you peel off its weird bumpy exterior, you end up a nice crunchy, white tuberlike stalk that tastes like celery, but much milder. A stalk you can use like a potato. So, you can puree it, roast it, add it to stews, toss it into a soup, etc.
Celeriac is easier to grow than the usual thick-stalked celery. Sow it indoors at the end of March, transplanting it to the garden when there is no longer any risk of frost. It likes full sun, moist, cool soil and appreciates a good mulch.
It can be harvested in midsummer, when the swollen stalk base is the size of a tennis ball, or wait until the first frosts, which gives you a much bigger “bulb.” At this point, it can be stored for several months in a cold room.
4. Mushroom Plant or Mushroom Herb
Now, this vegetable is fairly new. Although long grown in southeast Asia (it’s native to native to Papua New Guinea), it has little tradition as a plant for temperate gardens. But its unique taste is starting to set gardeners talking, as its shiny, crisp, dark green foliage really does taste like mushrooms, but without the slippery texture some people find unappetizing.
Although this bushy plant is a tropical vegetable, it can easily be grown in a temperate vegetable garden as an annual. Simply harvest the leaves and stem tips at any time, in the desired amount, whenever you need a bit of mushroom flavor. That way you won’t have to open a can of mushrooms or run out to buy a tray of fresh ones every time you come upon a recipe that requires mushrooms. The more you harvest (just clip off the stem tips), the denser it will grow!
The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked (but add them just before serving; otherwise they lose their color) in salads, soups and stews or used as a garnish. They’re rich in calcium, vitamin C, beta carotene, iron and other vitamins and minerals.
I’ve never seen seeds of this plant for sale. It’s one of those vegetables you need a “start” of. I find that many garden centers carry it at planting out season as a novelty. And all you need is a single rooted plant to start your own mushroom plant production.
Grow it in partial shade, if possible, although it will still tolerate full sun if necessary. It needs a warm location with rich and rather humid soil. A mulch would be an asset to maintain the necessary humidity. Don’t let it dry out!
Theoretically, you just let it die from the cold in the fall (it has zero frost resistance) and buy a new plant or two come spring. However, you can also bring either the plant or a cutting indoors in earliest fall, before nights drop below 57˚F (14˚C), and grow it indoors over the winter. As long as you protect it from the cold, it will behave like a small tropical shrub. It will require a warm, humid and well-lit indoor location indoors. I grow mine under fluorescent lights.
Who knows? If you bring yours in every fall, perhaps you’ll one day see its blue flowers, as they apparently only appear on plants of a certain maturity. My oldest plant is 4 years old, though, and shows no sign of blooming. But it’s pretty enough without bloom thanks to its shiny green leaves.
Here’s a complication: a “new” vegetable with at least half a dozen names! I’ve seen cucamelon, mouse melon, Mexican miniature watermelon, Mexican sour cucumber, Mexican sour gherkin and pepquino. I’m rooting for “cucumelon,” as it grows and tastes much like a cucumber, yet the fruit looks surprisingly like an itsy-bitsy watermelon.
As several of its names suggest, it originally comes from Mexico and elsewhere in Central America.
As a member of the squash or Cucurbitaceae family, it’s a relative of both cucumbers and melons, although more closely to the cucumber side of the family.
It’s a fast-growing climbing plant that will need serious trellising, easily reaching 10 feet (3 m) in height if you give its numerous tendrils something to cling to. The tiny flowers are yellow and are borne abundantly. The first flowers are always female only, but eventually male flowers appear as well, then fruits start to form. (Only one plant is needed, as female flowers accept pollen from male flowers on the same plant.) Within a month or so after planting out, fruits will be coming fast and furiously. They do not change color at maturity: harvest the white-mottled green fruits when they reach their full size. Don’t leave them too long on the plant or they become bitter.
Grow this plant like you would a cucumber too. Sow it indoors only 2 or 3 weeks before planting out or it becomes hard to manage. Use peat pots so as not to disturb the roots during transplantation. You can also sow it directly outdoors if you have a long, warm to hot gardening season.
The fruits taste something like a cucumber, although much more acidic. They can be eaten fresh or cooked, but typically they are marinated to make small pickles.
Cucamelon is easier to grow than a classic cucumber because it is more drought tolerant and disease resistant. Typically grown as an annual, you can also harvest and store its tubers indoors over the winter much as you would a dahlia or canna.
⚠️ Warning: cucamelon can be invasive in mild climates.
6. Cannibal’s Tomato
And here is a slightly rarer vegetable: the cannibal’s tomato. This vegetable is not yet as popular as the previous ones, but with a name like “cannibal’s tomato,” it certainly attracts attention.
Its round fruit, red when ripe, is reminiscent of a tomato, but the plant grows upright without climbing, more like an eggplant (aubergine). Of course, all three plants are related, as they belong to the same family, the Solanaceae. Cannibal’s tomato is an erect, branching plant bearing white or cream flowers that give rise to the famous “tomatoes.”
Its common name comes from Fijian cannibals in bygone days who are said to have used it to make a red sauce intended to accompany human flesh. No one knows, however, if this is a legend or if it really happened.
Grow this vegetable like you would an eggplant. That means, in most parts of the Northern Hemisphere, starting seeds indoors at the end of March, then transplanting them from a sunny, warm spot indoors to the vegetable garden during the summer once the soil has warmed up and all risk of frost is long gone. The foliage too is edible.
I have yet to see this in local garden centers (except in Australia, where it appears better known). You’ll probably have to search online for seeds. If so, I suggest doing so entering its old botanical name, Solanum uporo, into the search engine, rather than its current one, S. viride, as it doesn’t seem to be well accepted at this point.
And there you go! 6 unusual vegetables to grow in your garden this summer . . . and try in your kitchen as well!