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
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
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?