“In case you missed the memo, spring done sprung. And that means it’s finally safe to get planting — so you should clear out those vegetable beds, enrich them with compost, and get ready to rumble. Hopefully you’ve got some starts going already, but it’s not too late start fruits and veggies indoors, get them going right in the ground, or to pick up seedlings at the nursery. However, why not give some more unusual veggies a try in your garden this year?
1) Purple orach
It’s bright purple, but it tastes a whole lot like spinach, because it’s a close relative. If you’re tired of telling your kids to eat their leafy greens, this is a great alternative thanks to the vivid, fun color, and it also pops on a plate. The bonus to orach is that it can be grown for a longer period of time than spinach without going to seed, and the leaves don’t get bitter as the days get warmer and hotter. You can harvest it by cutting leaves as needed or cutting whole plants, and if you keep seedlings going continuously, you can ensure you’ll have a steady supply into the summer. It’s also a good fall/winter crop for moderate climates!
While endive is complicated to grow, some people think the sharp flavor is totally worth it. The leaves can be used in salads to add a note of bitterness, while the roots go well in stews, gratins and more. You’re going to start by seeding endive in rich, moist soil. Wait for the greens to reach a length of about six inches and cut them down — you can eat them, feed them to critters, or add them to the compost pile. Before you wonder what in the heck is going on, rest assured: We know what we’re doing here.
Unearth the roots, clip down long roots and stragglers, and then seat them in a tub with sand or very loose soil. Cover your tub and keep it in a cool place to allow the leaves to grow back. Because the tub is covered, they’ll grow yellow to white since they can’t photosynthesize, and they’ll develop a distinctive crunchy, bitter, intense flavor. Once your plants are mature, you can start harvesting them for salad — and for their roots!
At first glance, cardoons look a little like artichokes, but they’re not. For starters, you eat the stalk, not the blossoms. These plants can also be a little choosy and tricky to grow — they need well-drained soil, lots of sun and a bit of a babying hand. Make sure the soil is well fertilized and keep testing it to see if the plant needs added nutrition, but watch out for the rough leaves; these plants can get feisty! While you’re planting now, you won’t harvest until the fall, and because the stems can be very tough, you’ll need to use an old gardening trick: Cover the lower stems with cardboard, burlap or another wrapping material so they soften up because they aren’t exposed to the sun. After four to six weeks, cut the plant, trim down the stems, and get ready to feast — the stems can be used a lot like endive roots, and it’s also a classic favorite in Middle Eastern stews and curries.
4) Fava greens
These guys are dead simple to grow: You can practically stick some seeds in the ground and forget about them. But it helps if the soil drains well (raking it into hillocks and planting beans at the top can help with this) and if they’re planted in full sun. Your favas will grow remarkably quickly into tall stalks that will put out tons of greens along with pods of delicious beans. While the beans are a popular item, especially in Italian kitchens, the greens are also edible, and can be used to make pestos, sauces, salads and more. Kale is so last year!
5) Pea shoots
Peas are one of the easiest things on Earth to grow, which is one reason they’re often a starter crop for newbie gardeners. How easy? You’ll want well-drained soil, a warm spot, some pea seeds, and away you go. It’s a good idea to plant directly, as they don’t always transplant well, and you should make sure you have a trellis set up to support the growing vines. A string trellis is fast and easy (seriously — set up a couple of sticks and wind string between them), although you can also use a trellis from a nursery.
But you don’t have to wait for your friendly green pals to mature, because pea shoots are delicious. They have a light, springy flavor and taste amazing raw in salads, and you can also toss them into stir fries at the last minute or quickly steam them as a vegetable sides. Your pea shoots will snap right off the parent plant, making them a cinch to harvest. Make sure not to go overboard (you don’t want to nix your chance of harvesting peas later). Instead, use pea shoots as an excuse to thin your plants so there’s plenty of room for peas to get lots of sun and grow big and healthy.
No, this is not salsa on a shrub. It’s actually a root vegetable, and you want to get it going in the spring so you can harvest in the fall and winter. If you live somewhere particularly hot, wait until fall to sow it; the summer months can be a bit too much. Plant salsify in full sun in well-worked, rich soil, and add some compost around 45 days in to enrich the roots and keep them growing into maturity.
Do you like celery? Do you like lettuce? Do you want to weird out your guests? Meet celtuce. This plant hails from China, where it was originally grown for its tangy stalks, but you can eat the leaves, too. It provides a bit of a mix of both flavors that can be pretty startling if you’re not used to it! Start seeds in the spring either directly in the ground (mild weather) or indoors (cooler weather) in a warm, moist spot, and keep the soil damp until you can transplant them. Partial to full sun will help your celtuce grow quickly without bolting, and you’ll be cutting leaves off in no time.
Fennel leaves have a tender, delicious texture and a licorice-like flavor. Meanwhile, you can roast the root for a hearty addition to salads, side dish and more (fennel gratin is a pretty fantastic experience). If you live in a mild climate, you can grow fennel throughout the year; otherwise, plan on spring and fall, when the weather isn’t too extreme. Plant seeds directly in the garden, as it doesn’t appreciate transplanting, and keep the soil moist while the seeds have a chance to germinate. The plants prefer full to part sun. Watch out: If you live somewhere toasty, fennel can bolt if you plant it in the spring. Hold off until the worst of the summer heat is over.
While this lightly flavored and tasty herb can be found in the wild in many areas, you may not have ready access to places to harvest it; and if you’re a watercress sandwich fan, you may have noticed that it can be extremely expensive in the grocery store. Get around that by growing your own. Start your seeds indoors in water, with warm temperatures to encourage them to grow. In the garden, pick a damp, shady area. If there’s a spot where there’s a dip in the land with a pool or stream, that’s perfect. You can also make your own friendly growing conditions with a small fountain and damp soil. Make sure your watercress isn’t exposed to too much light, which can be overwhelming for this fragile, but delicious, plant.
Want to be water conscious? Many people are trying to cut down water use in their gardens and there are a few tricks you can use to address that concern. Start by watering in either the early morning or evening to avoid losing water to evaporation. Water every few days (plants will get used to it, with some exceptions), and water deeply, but not to the point of runoff. Mulching your plants will help them retain moisture so that on days when you’re not watering, they have reserves to draw upon!
What about pests? Put those pesticides away. Try companion planting with plants like marigolds, which naturally deter bugs, or ring your produce in “traps” like dill and radishes, which are more appealing than your valuable (and time-consuming) crops. Garlic and basil also make good companion plants. You can also foil pests by mixing things up. Don’t plant in long, endless rows; instead, scatter plants so they’re not as easy to mow through, and mix multiple kinds of plants that like the same conditions. A bug going for orach, for example, might have less interest in lettuce or dill, and so it might avoid a mixed bed altogether because it’s too much work!”
From “9 Unusual Crops to Plant This Spring” By s.e. smith