Growing unusual crops : The strange looking

Garden Life
From Sarah's garden to yours

Often our concept of what is a normal vegetable is the safe and trusted ones. A cabbage is a round green leafy vegetable, peas are small green orbs found within a pod and onions are made up of many pungent layers. In previous times, potatoes and tomatoes were new to Europeans, who had seen nothing like it. They were viewed with suspicion, and not immediately adopted as part of the common diet.

These days, there is nothing nicer than the taste of a home grown, sun-warmed tomato straight from the plant, or a freshly dug potato now accepted as a diet staple, and often taken for granted. While we know what we like, and tend to stick with it, there are a wide range of vegetables available to us that aren’t so ordinary. Often they aren’t even readily available in the stores, but are strange looking and a delight for the home gardener to enjoy.

‘Strange’ vegetables not commonly found within the weekly routine of a ‘normal’ diet but are well worth growing are:

OKRA Abelmoschus esculentu

Also known as Ladies' Fingers or Bhindi, Okra resembles no other commonly eaten vegetable. It is popular in India, Asia, the Southern States of America, South America, and West Africa, with possible origins in Egypt, spreading out across the world from there. It is a star ingredient in dishes such as gumbo, curries and Cajun cooking and it can be baked, fried, roasted, stewed, pickled, and barbequed. A quick internet search reveals a myriad of recipes from a wide range of cultures.

Okra can be grown in a home garden; however, it does need a long hot summer for the best results. It likes soil temperatures between 20 and 35°C and dislikes frost so it is a good idea to make sure it is warm enough outside before planting seedlings in the garden. Okra prefers a rich fertile soil with plenty of organic material incorporated.

They grow to be quite tall plants and need at least half a metre between each plant and a metre between rows. It can take 16 – 20 weeks before you see a harvest, however it is a stunning looking plant with beautiful flowers. The pods can become woody and inedible if left too long so harvest regularly while they are tender.

There are a couple of down sides with Okra however; they have hairs that can be an irritant when handled, so wear a sturdy pair of gardening gloves. They can be a little gooey when cut, but this can be remedied by cooking with acidic foods.


JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES Helianthus tuberosus

Also referred to as Sunchoke, this is certainly a strange looking vegetable and is in fact a tuber from the sunflower family. It does look a little like ginger, but its flavour is much more subtle and nutty, and sweet if kept in storage. Its name has evolved from the Italian word for sunflower, girasole, and so it has nothing to do with Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Artichoke is very easy to grow and doesn’t mind what soil they are planted in with the exception of a wet soggy area. Improving the soil will give bigger tubers at harvest time. Plant tubers about 10cm deep and 30 – 40cm apart. During the summer they grow very tall – up to 3 metres with delightful yellow flowers that have the slight scent of chocolate. Once in, they die down in the winter, cut back the stalks and dig up the tubers, leaving some in the ground for next season. They are rather prolific and as a perennial will be back each year, so best to grow them in a dedicated space.

Jerusalem Artichoke

GLOBE ARTICHOKE Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus

Not at all related to the Jerusalem artichoke (except for a similarity in taste), the Globe Artichoke is related to a thistle and are considered a delicacy. The plant is large – up to two metres tall but is a stunning architectural plant with large silvery leaves. It is easy to grow, which can make up for the fact it is a bit of work to prepare for eating. However, effort is rewarded by the wonderfully delicate artichoke heart.

Globe Artichoke can be started from seed or from off-shoots. The plants need a good fertile soil and a good square metre spacing. They tolerate frost well and will come back year after year. Harvest the artichoke buds then they are still tight and up to 15cm across. They will sprout smaller buds from the leaf joints below. Alternatively, you can allow them to fully open to display their brilliant purple flower that bees adore.

Globe artichoke

KOHLRABI Brassica oleracea

Brassica come in many shapes and sizes, but few are quite as strange as the Kohlrabi. Its spherical shape with leaves protruding oddly from its swollen stem is a sight to behold. But the strange part is what makes it so versatile as a vegetable. With a light brassica flavour and the texture of a coreless apple, it can be sliced, diced, or shredded, used raw with a dip or in a coleslaw or steamed and covered in cheese sauce. There are many ways to eat a Kohlrabi.

Grow Kohlrabi as you would a cabbage or a broccoli from seed in a rich, firm soil. Plant them 15 cm apart in rows 30 cm apart and harvest them after about 10 weeks when they are between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball. Succession sow every few weeks for a continual harvest. Remember to crop rotate to avoid club root disease.