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Rare vegetables

UK Garden Centre - An overview of rare vegetables

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Vegetable plots and allotment gardens from Caithness to Cornwall present a familiar scene. Depending on the season, rows of beans, peas, brassicas, carrots and onions…a block of potatoes and the saladings (lettuces, radishes etc.) pushed in where space allows. Nothing strange, and that is what you would expect. The purpose of the plot is to raise food for the family, and it would be foolish indeed to waste all that money and effort to produce vegetables which turned out to be unpalatable.
On the other hand, it is silly never to try anything new, and the soundest advice is to devote a small area or even a single row to a rarity – a vegetable you have never grown before and perhaps never even seen before in a garden.
It is easy to make out a strong case for growing rarities. After all, it will only cost you the price of a packet of seeds and some are no more difficult to grow than potatoes and a lot easier than peas. After harvest you can impress your friends by serving vegetables which they have never seen before…but there are snags.
The reason why a vegetable has failed to achieve popularity is generally due to a clear-cut fault. Some, such as corn salad and the culinary dandelion, are flavourless and somewhat bitter and so add little to the range of tastes available from the everyday greens we all grow. Others (seakale, cardoon, etc.) are troublesome to cultivate as they require blanching, and there are others such as the Chinese artichoke which are troublesome to prepare in the kitchen. Perhaps the main reason for the disappearance of many once-popular vegetables from the seed catalogues is the simple truth that fashions change and the old is replaced by the new. Examples described here are Good King Henry, nasturtium leaves and seakale – others not listed include purslane, skirret and rampion. Strange names indeed, but these were the vegetables to be found in the old catalogues when tomatoes and runner beans were regarded as oddities.
Obviously it would be foolhardy to devote a large area to the growing of a wide range of oddities, only to find that the family found them distasteful. The golden rule is to try to taste an unknown vegetable before you decide to grow it. Still, gardening without some degree of risk and venture into the unknown would be a dull hobby, so follow the route outlined below.
First of all, grow an unusual variety of a popular vegetable. You can try the turnip-sized Black Spanish Round or the giant Minowase Summer instead of the humble red radish, or you can sow eat-in-the-pod mangetout peas in place of the Onward or Kelvedon Wonder you sow every year. There are purple-podded French beans, red brussels sprouts, striped tomatoes and bronze-coloured lettuces…something different without venturing into new and perhaps unacceptable tastes.
Your next step into the unknown should be to sow one or more of the less usual vegetables. Seeds are available from most large nurserymen and there is nothing really ‘peculiar’ about any of them. Good examples are globe and Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac, kohl rabi, salsify and scorzonera. Once again, buy a few from the supermarket and get the family’s approval before devoting space and time to them on the vegetable plot. If you have a greenhouse, you can try aubergine or capsicum alongside the ever-popular tomato and cucumber.
Finally, for the truly adventurous there are the rarities described here. In nearly all cases you will have to search through the catalogues to find a supplier – the outstanding exception is the nasturtium which can be bought everywhere and grown anywhere. Some are certainly worth growing – Florence fennel should not be missed if you like the taste of aniseed, land cress is an excellent substitute for watercress and nasturtium leaves add more zest to a green salad than soggy lettuce leaves. Hamburg parsley provides leaves for garnishing and roots for cooking, and a clump of welsh onions will provide ‘spring onions’ year after year. Maybe you won’t prefer them, but what have you got to lose?

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