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Gardening Columns

Here are some experiments that have become favorites:
leeks, shallots, and 'All Blue' potatoes.

Try Something Different in Your Vegetable Garden

First published on on May 25, 2006, by Suzanne DeJohn

Every year I try growing something new and different in my vegetable garden. In past years I've experimented with 'Jacob's Coat' chard, Romano-type pole beans, 'Lacinata' kale, 'King Richard' leeks, and shallots, all of which have become mainstays in my garden. A few years ago I tried 'Georgia Peach' tomatoes, which have, as you might imagine, unusual skin -- not quite fuzzy, but not smooth like a typical tomato. It was interesting, but didn't make the cut. I guess I like my tomatoes to be ... tomatoey, not peachy. Here are some suggestions for crops and varieties you might like to try.

Root crops. Have fun with your roots and try growing yellow beets and beautiful 'Chiogga', which has concentric stripes of red and white when sliced crosswise. If you have heavy soil or are growing in containers, short and tasty 'Thumbelina' carrots will do better than larger varieties. 'Adelaide' is a Dutch carrot hybrid that is grown for the popular "baby" carrots you see in the grocery store. Parsnips, once a garden staple, are often overlooked these days, but their spicy, sweet flavor shouldn't be missed.

Beans. I like to grow yellow and purple varieties, mostly because the contrasting color makes them easy to harvest. Consider growing some flat-podded, Romano-type beans, which I have found have a stronger, "beanier" flavor than many of the more slender-podded varieties. Bush beans come into production earlier, but a simple bamboo trellis planted with pole beans will provide a longer harvest season. You might also enjoy the novelty of yard-long beans, also known as asparagus beans, which are best harvested when they are "only" about a foot long.

Eggplants. Eggplants now come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors. Brighten up your patch of shiny purple-black eggplants with plants bearing orange, white, pink, or lavender fruits. In addition to the common oblong ones, consider including some elongated types, such as 'Chinese Pingtung Long' or 'Ichiban', and some small, rounded varieties, such as 'Oriental Purple Ball' or green 'Thai' eggplant.

Lettuce. Numerous lettuce mixes are available now, often categorized by spiciness so you can choose how much zip you want. If you like strong flavors, plant spicy arugula and mustard greens, cabbagy mizuna, or bitter radicchio (chicory).

Cole crops. Broccoli raab (rapini) is a pungent, non-heading broccoli; the leaves, stems, and flower buds are steamed and used to complement blander foods. Calabrese (Italian sprouting) broccoli is less pungent but still stronger in flavor than modern hybrids.

Peppers and tomatoes. There are so many varieties of peppers and tomatoes to choose from, it's crazy to settle for only mainstream varieties. Sweet peppers come in a kaleidoscope of colors, including purple, white, orange, yellow, and "chocolate" (brown). If you like the flavor of hot peppers but not the heat, try 'Fooled You' or 'Senorita' jalapenos. If you can take the heat, try habanero- or serrano-type varieties.

The best-tasting tomato I ever grew was 'Pruden's Purple'. The tomatoes weren't pretty -- many were misshapen -- but the flavor and texture were remarkable. Other fun options are 'Aunt Ruby's German Green', 'Brandywine', or some of the newer "grape" tomatoes that produce hundreds of tiny fruits. Note that some heirloom varieties have minimal disease resistance, so plant some disease-resistant hybrids as backups.

Here are a few other unusual crops to try: birdhouse gourds, purple kohlrabi, 'Lumina' white pumpkin, 'Eightball' round zucchini, shallots, Florence fennel (grown for its anise-flavored bulbous stems), and tomatillos.

While the plants are growing, you might have to expand your cookbook collection and explore new ways to make the most of your harvest!

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