Growing Unusual Edibles
Grow unusual things in your garden
There are lots of things that you can grow in a kitchen garden. Growing common and easy to find vegetable varieties will keep you busy all year, but there are also more unusual things to try if you fancy moving off the beaten track!
Many of them are well known and easy to find information on. Some are a bit more unusual, but experimenting with unusual edibles is fun and can be tasty!
Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs - Unusual edible plants, and the people who grow them
Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs is a guide book to the world of unusual edible plants, whether they are old or new, rarely grown or from somewhere far flung. It looks at the history of plant hunters moving these plants around the world, and tells the stories of modern day enthusiasts, showcasing some of the unusual plants you may encounter as you begin your own incredible edible journey.
Beyond our familiar fruits, vegetables and herbs, edible plants can be exotic, old-fashioned, wild or just plain weird. Think of the things you consider to be unusual – things you've seen in the produce section, or the latest 'superfruit' to be mentioned in the media. Perhaps you encountered something new on holiday, and wished you could bring it home with you. A list of plants you consider to be unusual would be different from my list, which would be different from everyone else's, because what counts as unusual depends on both your past experiences, where you live and when you live – there are trends and fashions in food and gardening, as in anything else.
An unusual plant may have been commonly grown in the past, or it may have been bred only recently and be something truly new. Or it may come from far away. It may be a plant that is very commonly grown and known in agriculture, but not often cultivated at home - or the reverse, a plant that is common in gardens and on allotments but rarely commercially available.
Why would people want to step off the beaten garden path and grow something unusual? At the simplest level, I think there is a natural human impulse to seek out new and interesting things, to collect them, to experience them, and for gardeners to grow something new just to see if they can.
Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs tells the story of unusual edible plants and the people who grow them. It begins with a potted history of the plant hunters who first began moving edible plants around the world. Returning to the present, it examines the motivations of the modern day fans of unusual edibles, and showcases some of the unusual plants you may encounter as you being your own journey into this fascinating and intriguing world.
James Wong - Homegrown Revolution
James Wong is an ethnobotanist, and he wants us to grow something different in our gardens! Based in London, James has been patiently testing which unusual edibles will grow happily in the warmer parts of the UK, and this book is the result. He combines growing instructions with recipes - have a look at his website, as his blog has more recipes you can try. If you're in the UK, Suttons are selling a range of exotic seeds to go with the book, and they have a special offer that bundles the book with some seeds to get you off to a flying start!
A revolution in the garden - a completely new range of fruit and vegetables to grow and eat.
Whether it's a window box of homegrown saffron, your very own kiwi vine or a mini green tea plantation on your patio, TV botanist and best-selling author James Wong proves that 'growing your own' can be so much more exciting than spuds, sprouts and swede.
Breaking free from the 'dig for victory' time warp of allotment staples, James reveals the vast array of 21st century crops that will flourish outdoors, even in our blustery North Atlantic climate - no greenhouse necessary. From goji berries to food-mile free sweet potatoes, James' revolutionary approach to edible gardening will show you how to grow, cook and eat all manner of superfood crops that are just as easy (if not easier) and far more exciting to grow than the 'ration book' favourites.
Inspiring, fun and full of plant know-how, this book is set to revolutionise the whole concept of 'growing your own' for newbie growers to seasoned allotment veterans alike. You'll never look at your garden the same way again!
Tasty tubers that are fantastically easy to grow
Jerusalem artichokes have been out of fashion, but are poised to make a comeback. They contain inulin, an indigestible starch that makes them a very low calorie food. Inulin is also a prebiotic, helping to maintain healthy populations of bacteria in your gut.
Jerusalem artichokes are so easy to grow that they can take over the garden. Like potatoes, if you don't dig up all the tubers the ones left behind will grow again next year. If you want a low-maintenance vegetable garden then they're definitely for you!
If you don't have a garden, or don't want to risk it being overrun with artichokes, then try growing Jerusalem artichokes in containers.
Grow the unicorn plant, or devil's claw
The martynia is an old-time garden curiosity very much unrecognized for its culinary merits. You might call it the okra lover's Holy Grail because the martynia has the flavor of okra, only intensified, and sometimes with an undertone of the highly rated morel mushroom. Also, the interesting hooked shape of the baby pods lends them to all kinds of culinary applications, from stir-fries to pickles.
Read more at Mother Earth News.
The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z - by Emma Cooper
376 pages, 190 colour photographs
Praise for 'The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A to Z'
"An indispensable compendium for a new generation of eco-conscious kitchen gardeners." Elspeth Thompson, The Sunday Telegraph gardening columnist
"An ideal companion for anyone getting dirt under their fingernails for the first time." Tracey Smith, writer / broadcaster on sustainable living, author of The Book of Rubbish Ideas
"Emma's style is light and friendly yet at the same time informative and based on personal experience.... A dual purpose book - a concise and valuable practical guide, but at the same time a lovely little read for the deck chair or hammock!" Graham Burnett, permaculture teacher and author (read his Permaculture Magazine review here)
"Emma Cooper is an unstoppable force, one of life's positive people, and The Alternative Kitchen Garden sets out her inspiring personal vision of how to grow your own." Emma Townshend, Independent on Sunday gardening columnist
"Hallelujah - a kitchen garden handbook for the genuine newbie. Instead of dry facts and statistics, here you have a description of the life and soul of a garden." Corrina Gordon-Barnes, award-winning writer of The World Needs Your Passion web site
"The Alternative Kitchen Garden is not just an A-Z, it is an inspirational tour of an edible garden that can be recreated in the smallest of backyards. An essential guide for a new generation of gardeners who are keen to join the kitchen garden revolution." Karen Cannard, blogger and author of The Rubbish Diet
Buy from Green Shopping Catalogue
Buy from Amazon.co.uk
Buy from Blackwells (UK)
Add a few tubers your to fruit salads!
"Easy to grow and store, high-yielding, supernutritious and crunchy like an apple, yacon (pronounced ya-kon) is one of the many “new” vegetables coming to us from South America. In reality, this fruitlike vegetable has been cultivated throughout the Andes for more than a millennium. South Americans eat it as a fruit; they also use the huge leaves to wrap foods during cooking, in the same way cabbage leaves are used in Germany, grape leaves in the Mideast and banana leaves in the tropics. Only recently — thanks to some adventurous green thumbs — have North Americans begun to see yacon in produce markets."
Read the rest of William Woys Weaver's article on Yummy Yacon.
One way of controlling weeds is to eat them!
Some unusual edibles can be tricky to grow - they may not like your climate, they may need special attention to thrive. But if you look at the weeds that naturally want to grow in your garden then you may find that some of them are edible as well. My article No Hoe Zoe in the Guardian covered some common weeds - nettles, dandelions, brambles (blackberries) among others - but also mentions Japanese Knotweed, which can be an invasive problem weed. However, it's also edible and can be used as a rhubarb replacement. There are plenty of tasty recipes floating around on the internet, including several for Japanese Knotweed crumble. As with any unusual edible, though, (particularly ones you haven't deliberately grown yourself) be careful that you have correctly identified the plant before you tuck in!
The edible and useful plant you can't grow
Hemp (Cannabis sativa) used to be widely grown for its useful products - fibre, seeds and leaves. It can be used for clothing and rope, for food and medicine, for paper-making and for repelling insects (have a look at PFAF for more information on its uses).
But in many places it is now illegal to grow hemp because of its narcotic relations. There are strains of Cannabis sativa that produce virtually no narcotic compounds - you'd never get high from them - and these are grown commercially in the UK for use in many different industries, but they are not available to the home farmer or kitchen gardener. For more information read my blog post Crazy Ideas: Hemp.
Hemp at Eden - Why is there a hemp fence at the Eden Project?
There's plenty to find out about Hemp, growing in the Outdoor Biome
A Year in a Forest Garden - Perennial Crops for a Changing Climate
Get a sneak preview of 'A Year in a Forest Garden - Perennial Crops for a Changing Climate', a DVD by Martin Crawford that's being released in April 2009.
Perennial Vegetables - From Artichokes to Zuiki Taro, A Gardener's Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles
An outstanding encyclopedia of perennial vegetables and fruits - unusual and delicious edible plants for your garden. Arranged by plant family, and complete with detailed instructions on how to grow each plant, the climate it thrives in, and how to eat it when you get your harvest.
There is a fantastic array of vegetables you can grow in your garden, and not all of them are annuals. In Perennial Vegetables the adventurous gardener will find information, tips, and sound advice on less common edibles that will make any garden a perpetual, low-maintenance source of food.
Imagine growing vegetables that require just about the same amount of care as the flowers in your perennial beds and borders—no annual tilling and potting and planting. They thrive and produce abundant and nutritious crops throughout the season. It sounds too good to be true, but in Perennial Vegetables author and plant specialist Eric Toensmeier (Edible Forest Gardens) introduces gardeners to a world of little-known and wholly underappreciated plants. Ranging beyond the usual suspects (asparagus, rhubarb, and artichoke) to include such "minor" crops as ground cherry and ramps (both of which have found their way onto exclusive restaurant menus) and the much sought after, anti-oxidant-rich wolfberry (also known as goji berries), Toensmeier explains how to raise, tend, harvest, and cook with plants that yield great crops and satisfaction.
Perennial vegetables are perfect as part of an edible landscape plan or permaculture garden. Profiling more than 100 species, illustrated with dozens of color photographs and illustrations, and filled with valuable growing tips, recipes, and resources, Perennial Vegetables is a groundbreaking and ground-healing book that will open the eyes of gardeners everywhere to the exciting world of edible perennials.
Oca tubers are one of the Lost Crops of the Incas and come in a range of colors. They are grown like potatoes (but they don't suffer from blight), although they benefit from a longer growing season.
Oca has a lemony flavor and you can save a few tubers from your harvest each year to replant the following season.
Book review: Growing Unusual Vegetables - Weird and Wonderful Vegetables and How to Grow Them
One of my favorite gardening books is Growing Unusual Vegetables by Simon Hickmott.
Simon walks you through how to grow over 90 different unusual edible plants, including details of their history and how you use them once they've grown.
You'll learn about unusual leafy vegetables, fruits and roots and even some grains, herbs and spices.
If you want a taster, check out this interview with Simon Hickmott which includes details on growing chickpeas, water chestnuts and sea kale and some suggestions of plants for an edible border.
Growing Unusual Vegetables is for gardeners who like to try something different. In this book they will find more than ninety unusual plants, all of them edible. The book is divided into sections on greens, roots, fruits, seeds, grains, and flavorings for easy reference. Each plant entry comes complete with comprehensive cultivation instructions, hardiness zones, and fascinating notes on the plant’s origin, history, and uses.
With this indispensable guide, you can turn your garden into a unique storehouse of useful and unusual edible plants, many of which are surprisingly easy to grow.
Saffron - Crocus sativus
Grow the world's most expensive spice
Saffron is expensive because it is made from the stamens of Crocus sativus - and each plant only has 3 strands. There's no mechanical way to harvest saffron, so all the work is done by hand. Despite this, many cuisines from around the world use saffron as a staple spice.
It is possible to grow your own if you can recreate Mediterranean growing conditions. Check out Simon Hickmott's 'Growing unusual vegetables' for detailed growing instructions, but two important points to note is that deep planting of the corms encourages flowering and that you need to make sure you have the right species of crocus as some species are poisonous.
Feeling hot! Grow unusual peppers
There's more to peppers than meets the eye
Peppers (both sweet capsicums and hot chillies) need a long, hot summer to thrive. For many people this means they're greenhouse plants, but if you have a sunny spot then you can succeed with a pepper outside in a good summer. Or they make decorative and fruitful houseplants.
The great thing about peppers is that there are a huge numbers of varieties. Growing your own from seed means you can choose between large and small, bell and long, different colors and a whole spectrum of heat.
You may even be able to keep an indoor pepper alive through the winter - they're perennial plants in their natural habitat.
Most cultivated peppers are Capsicum annum, but for the more adventurous there are other species you could try. For more information, read my article The pepper plant and growing your own peppers on Helium.
Or just try sowing seeds from store-bought peppers.
Places to visit: Ryton Organic Gardens, Warwickshire
'A Great Day Out in the Heart of England'
Ryton Organic Gardens is the demonstration garden of Garden Organic, the UK's organic gardening charity.
As well as proving that organic methods can give you a beautiful garden, Ryton is home to the Heritage Seed Library. You will find some of the heritage varieties growing in the Vegetable Inspirations garden, and if you're lucky you might be able to buy some heritage plants in the shop.
There's also the Cook's Garden, where everything is edible. As well as a traditional veg patch, there's also plenty of edible perennials here - roses and herbs are just the tip of the iceberg.
To hear more about Ryton Organic Gardens, listen to episode 24 of The Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast.
AKA Mexican sour gherkins
These little cukes were on my list of things to try - easy to grow, scrambling plants, they are disease and pest resistant and produce a bountiful harvest of tiny cucumbers that kids (big and small) will love.
So far so good - the plants are flowering and starting to fruit, and they're tiny and so cute!
A very Chinese vegetable that's easy to grow at home
Pea shoots are the leafy tendrils of peas, grown to be used as a salad, or stir fry vegetable. Very popular in China, they haven't caught on as a commercial crop because they would be too expensive.
But if you have spare pea seeds then they're easy to grow - just load up a shallow tray with compost and pea seeds. Keep them moist, wait a couple of weeks for them to grow their first leaves, then cut the shoots off above the first joint. The plants can be left to grow on for more harvests.
Pea shoots have a delicate flavor and should be eaten raw or just lightly cooked (stir fried or steamed).
You can even grow them in winter, if you have a sunny windowsill or frost-free greenhouse.
To hear more about growing peas and peashoots, listen to episode 21 of the Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast.
Book review: Plants for a future - Edible and Useful Plants for a Healthier World
Plants for a Future, by Kern Fern, is an encyclopedia of edible and useful plants that grow in temperate climates.
Ken Fern's aim is to draw attention to the wealth of plants which are useful, but not commercially grown and so virtually unknown.
Many of the plants in the book are perennials, and valuable additions to low maintenance gardens. There are ground cover plants, herbs, shrubs and trees and climbers.
Chapters include: pond gardens, edible lawns, wild habitats and an index of plants listed according to their use.
This is an absolutely fascinating book for the keen gardener.
Permaculture Plants - Ken Fern and his unusual edibles
Ken Fern talks about some of the unusual plants he grows in Cornwall (and which will all be mentioned in his book, Plants for a Future (see above)).
Places to visit: The RISC roof garden, Reading
See unusual edibles in all their glory in this rooftop oasis
The RISC roof garden, in Reading, is only a few years old. All the plants grow in just 1 foot of soil. And yet there's trees reaching for the sky - a cherry and a medlar are just two - and much of the work in the garden is based around controlling over-exuberant plants.
This is a forest garden, designed along permaculture principles. Plants are chosen to occupy different niches, so that no inch of space is wasted. Every vertical surface is covered with climbing plants.
Each plant is edible or otherwise useful. Many have multiple uses. They all come from temperate climates (a lot are from China and North America) and so grow well in this environment.
The Roof garden opens to the public several times a year. If you're too far away for a visit, you can find pictures and a list of the plant species on the RISC roof garden website.
To hear more about the RISC garden, listen to episode 13 of The Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast.
A perennial onion the bees will love
Welsh onions Allium fistulosum are perennial, clumping onions. You can grow them from seed, and once you have you need never be short of onions again.
Welsh onions can be used like spring onions or leeks. They're so hardy that in most climates you can harvest them all year round.
Bees love their white flowers, which are attractive to humans as well.
To learn more about Welsh onions, listen to episode 20 of the Alternative Kitchen Garden podcast.
A vegetable the Incas would have grown
Achocha (Cyclanthera pedata or Cyclanthera brachystachya) is a climbing plant that likes warm, rather than hot weather. It's not fussy about soil and is easy to grow - once it has established it can be quite rampant and makes a nice screen.
Achocha flowers are tiny and pale green and you can easily miss them, but hoverflies love them and so achocha attracts these beneficial insects into your garden.
The flowers are followed by green fruits in the shape of a tear-drop. Picked young they can be eaten raw. Older fruits need to have the hard seeds removed (save them for next year!) before they can be cooked. Fruits can be used like green peppers.
Achocha plants are not frost hardy. Sow your seeds when you would plant your bean seeds and you won't go far wrong.
For more information, check out the article on growing achocha on my website.
Unusual Tree Fruit
If you're in the UK, Thompson & Morgan are offering the Paw Paw for delivery in Feb 2011!
Unusual Edibles websites
Where to source and find out more about unusual edible and useful plants.
- Plants For A Future - 7000 useful plants
Plants For A Future is a resource centre for rare and unusual plants, particularly those which have edible, medicinal or other uses. We practice vegan-organic permaculture with emphasis on creating an ecologically sustainable environment and Perennia
- Seed Savers Exchange
Since 1975, Seed Savers Exchange members have passed on approximately one million samples of rare garden seeds to other gardeners. We are a non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds.
- Great Vegetable Seeds from The Real Seed Catalogue
Rated 'Ethical Best Buy' by Ethical Consumer Magazine. Over the years we have collected together what we think are the very best vegetable varieties in existence for the home gardener. The name of the catalogue reflects what we are trying to preserve
- Organic Gardening, Modern Homesteading, Renewable Energy, Green Homes, Do it Yourself
Mother Earth News - The Original Guide to Living Wisely
- Tropical and Traditional Flower and Vegetable Seeds from JungleSeeds
JungleSeeds provides tropical seeds, exotic seeds and exotic vegetable seed by mail order. An unusual selection of tropical, semi-hardy and hardy varieties to whet your appetite.
- Kore Wild Fruit Nursery
We are a small-scale mail order nursery based in South Wales specializing in plants that produce edible fruit from all over the world.
- The Alternative Kitchen Garden
Emma Cooper is a freelance writer, photographer and podcaster. She is a keen gardener and lives in Oxfordshire with husband Pete and two pet chickens - Hen Solo and Princess Layer. Every year she grows a fresh crop of edible plants - some familiar, m
- Otter Farm
Otter Farm lies on the sunny banks of the River Otter in Devon and is home to some of the finest food you can grow. Succulent peaches and apricots, olives, pecans and persimmons grow in young orchards alongside the more traditional, forgotten fruit
- Chiltern Seeds
Fresh seeds of around 4,500 species and varieties, many rare and unusual, and including almost 200 brand new items and more than 150 reintroductions for 2010. Availability on the website is updated daily, and the majority of seeds are available for i
- The Agroforestry Research Trust
The Agroforestry Research Trust is a non-profit making charity, registered in England, which researches into temperate agroforestry and into all aspects of plant cropping and uses, with a focus on tree, shrub and perennial crops. They produce severa
- Seeds of Italy
Seeds of Italy are respecters of nature and food. They love growing veg, mushroom picking, preserving and other traditions. But they're starting to get worried about our environment - you don't need to be Leonardo da Vinci to see how we are all livin