Weird but wonderful: Alan Titchmarsh on growing unusual veggies
When you’ve grown an identical favourite vegetables, salads and herbs for several years, why not escape and check out something more strange? Don’t overdo it – just try a number of novelties each season other than replacing your old faithfuls entirely, sowing a brief row or a container or two at the patio. Besides opening up new culinary experiences, unusual veggies make great conversation pieces when friends visit in the course of the growing season. You’ll find seeds of a few varieties at the racks on the garden centre, and a much broader range in seed catalogues – especially Chiltern Seeds, The Organic Gardening Catalogue and James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution at Suttons Seeds (full range online only: www.suttons.co.uk).
These are round, white, green or purple “roots”, that are actually the swollen stem bases of a brief, squat brassica plant with glaucous leaves. Sow the seeds from April to mid-July where they’re to grow, and skinny the seedlings out – don’t transplant them. Harvest them at tennis-ball size in summer to grate raw in salads or home-made coleslaw, or slice very thinly as raw veg “crisps”.
These are attractive, knee-high plants with curious, four-flanged, frilly-edged pods that follow bright-red pea flowers. Dense and compact, they enjoy a warm spot, perhaps at the patio. Sow in tubs in late May, and pick pods while small and tender at one inch long in July and August. Steam or stir-fry whole.
Sometimes called stump-rooted celery, these plants produce large spherical “roots” that grow half above ground on the base in their stems. Sow now on a warm windowsill indoors, prick out the seedlings at an inch high into small individual pots, and keep at 55-60°F until April (they “bolt” if given any type of check, so keep them at a gradual temperature and water carefully so that they never dry out or drown). Then gently harden off and plant outside in May, feeding and watering regularly to make certain steady growth. Start digging roots as needed from September onwards, leaving remainder within the ground to maintain growing – they are going to stay there happily until March if the bottom isn’t saturated.
Originally an Aztec root vegetable – it’s the ancestor of today’s decorative dahlias – these tubers taste like small sweet potatoes but are more easily grown in our climate. Sow once possible indoors, prick out, pot up and plant out from late May onwards, then harvest the roots in late autumn. Peel and use as sweet potatoes. They’re available from James Wong at Suttons.
This unusual, cucumber-like vine produces large crops of bite-sized baby melons that taste of cucumber with a touch of lime – perfect for salads, picnics, lunchboxes and cocktail snacks. Grow from seed within the same way as cucumbers, then plant in tubs on a warm, sheltered patio. Train up trellis or grow under cover, again as you will a cucumber plant. Pick the fruit after they are grape-sized, in the course of the summer. Also available from James Wong at Suttons.
This Andean plant (Oxalis tuberosa) has typical oxalis leaves and lots more and plenty of small pink or white underground tubers you could eat raw in salads or as snacks, or cooked like new potatoes. Plant starter tubers in pots and begin on a windowsill indoors, then plant out into tubs on a warm, sheltered patio in late May. Harvest within the same way as potatoes, in November/December, and save a couple of tubers for replanting next year. They’re available from Thompson & Morgan.
New Zealand spinach
A low, floppy, ground-covering plant with thick, fleshy leaves, this tastes similar to conventional spinach when cooked. It’s a frost-tender plant, so sow it in May, in a row within the veg patch or in a container at the patio. Pick individual leaves once the plants are sufficiently big. An identical plants crop continuously without bolting, even in a hot, dry summer (unlike real spinach), and continue into the fall (cover with cloches or fleece to increase the season). Self-sown seeds may germinate all alone the next year – transplant the seedlings into tubs or rows while they’re still small. New Zealand spinach is accessible from The Organic Gardening Catalogue.
Perhaps one of the best known kind of this short, early-flowering perennial is Pulmonaria officinalis, which flowers in a month or so’s time. But blooming now are two attractively compact semi-evergreens: Pulmonaria rubra and its cultivars (mostly with terracotta-pink to red flowers and plain green leaves), and Pulmonaria saccharata (pink to purplish red or proper purple flowers and silver-spotted or almost entirely silvery-grey leaves).