Growing unusual crops : The completely different

Garden Life
From Sarah's garden to yours

Each of our personal dream vegetable garden would most likely look different. Some would go down the traditional route with straight rows in double dug soil. Others will opt for a natural look interplanted with organic principles, and some will be in raised beds with a mix of all sorts of techniques. However different our dream gardens are, there is one thing that would possibly be similar across them all – the desire for space, unlimited space.

For a keen gardener, the boundaries of the garden are seldom big enough. If the garden's primary purpose is to feed the family, it makes sense to grow things that they will actually eat. And so the garden is filled with tomatoes, potatoes, sweetcorn and other favourites. If instead, the garden offers the opportunity to grow things not found in the supermarket, or, even better, the excitement of growing things that hardly anyone has even heard of before, then there are plenty of different things for the adventurous gardener to try.

ASPARAGUS PEA Tetragonolobus purpureus

Also known as a ‘Winged Bean’, this legume plant is a great edible to try. The name implies it may have a vaguely asparagus flavour, but has also been described as tasting nutty. Its prostrate growth habit makes it an excellent ground cover in the garden and can act like a living mulch that can give you a harvest. Asparagus Pea only grows 15cm tall but can spread to about 60cm wide. It will smother any weeds in its way and as a legume it can fix nitrogen from the soil. However, it can become a weed itself so don’t let the seed pods mature.

As it is a frost tender annual, start Asparagus Pea indoors and/or sow seeds outdoors once the risk of frost has passed. It is a quick growing plant, and the pods will be ready to harvest within 3 months but need a hot summer. A lover of full sun, Asparagus Pea also doesn’t need the soil to be too rich or too moist.

The beautiful red pea like flowers, which come in pairs and are edible, make a lovely garnish. The leaves can also be eaten as you would spinach. But it is the pods, with their ruffle on three sides, that are the highlight of the plant and are best enjoyed smaller than 3cm while they are tender, or they become fibrous and too tough to eat. They can be quite prolific and will need picking often. Asparagus peas can be fried, boiled, steamed, or pickled and will look amazing on the plate.

Asparagus Pea

LUFFA Luffa aegyptiaca

The fruit from this plant often comes as a surprise to those who haven’t given it much thought. It grows like a gourd and does best when grown up a frame or trellis as this can give better shape to the luffa. Once it is well past the point many crops are harvested - when it is brown and the mature seeds rattle inside it – Luffa is picked from the vine soaked in a bucket of water. The skin is peeled away to reveal a sturdy framework of fibrous material that when dry, is great to use as a exfoliating scrubber in the bathroom. Many are under the impression this bathroom sponge comes from the ocean and are surprised to discover it is something that can be easily grown in any backyard garden.

Luffa is simple enough to grow, and can be treated as you would a cucumber. Plant it out once the risk of frost has past and stake it – ideally on a trellis as it will scramble and can be a rather large vining plant up to 3m in length. Luffa lingers in the garden much longer than the cucumber in the autumn while the luffa matures. If harvested too soon the luffa will be mushy without the desired fibrous structure. It can be eaten when small and immature and is halfway between a cucumber and a zucchini in texture with a mild and sweet flavour when cooked.

Luffa in garden

CAIGUA Cyclanthera pedata

Caigua is another vining plant that scrambles even further than a luffa – up to 4m and gives an unexpected crop. The crop gives a weirdly shaped pod with soft spikes, which has been loosely compared to a gherkin. However, it isn’t like a gherkin at all as it develops a hollow centre as it matures. Like the Asparagus Pea, the pod is best harvested small (5cm) and is as prolific, so harvesting often when little will give you an abundant yield, although it can still be eaten when larger. Caigua can be treated as you would a green bean, a cucumber or even a capsicum. It is quite versatile and can be steamed, fried, pickled, or even eaten raw. A traditional staple crop in South America, Caigua has a history that goes back as far as the Incas.

Easy to grow and similar in preferred conditions to tomatoes, Caigua thrive in a sunny spot with free draining soil and protection from the frost. A climbing frame would be considered essential to be able to direct its growth and prevent it from scrambling all over the garden. Caigua can self-seed readily, so make sure all pods are gathered up at the end of the season.


ROSELLE Hibiscus sabdariffa

For something completely different, a Roselle is not only delicious but also very beautiful. It is in the hibiscus family and grows to 2 metres tall. However it isn’t the flower that is appreciated with this plant, but the bud. A bud should be harvested about 10 days after it first appears but before the flower opens as that is when the calyx is at its plumpest.

Roselle is often found as an ingredient in fruit teas but can be eaten raw or used to make jams and jellies. The flavour is comparable to cranberry. It needs a long warm growing season and to be protected from frost. Starting indoors can extend the growing season.