Unusual Vegetables for Northern Gardeners

In yesterday’s post, we offered a few tips from Jackie Smith of the University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners of Carver and Scott Counties on growing vegetables. Jackie’s comments came during a presentation on growing unusual — or more accurately — underused vegetables in northern gardens.

jackie and radish

Jackie Smith slices a fall radish for attendees at her talk to try. A luffa she grew is also on the table.

While the most popular vegetables to grow are tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans and lettuce, many more vegetables grow well in our climate and many of them can be stored into the winter season. Jackie offered a long list of options, but here are five that you may not be growing, but should try.

Sweet potatoes. I know, I know — isn’t this a southern veg? Yes, but some sweet potato varieties — Jackie recommends Vardaman — grow well in northern climates. Jackie plants her sweet potatoes about June 1 for harvest in October. The picture she showed at garden day was of sweet potatoes growing in a fairly large container. The leaves are ornamental (I’m thinking about putting a few pots in my front yard) and each plant produces 4 to 5 delicious spuds. Jackie recommends harvesting as soon as the leaves are nipped by frost, curing the potatoes two weeks in a warm place and then storing them. They will last all winter. She also recommends saving slips from the plants, rooting them in potting soil and saving them for the next year. Apparently, they will root and hang on but not grow much through the winter, then grow like crazy when the warm season arrives. 

Fennel. You can’t really plant fennel until well into June, because it requires warm soil. As a result, you may not always get the full round bulbs that taste like anise. If you do get them, enjoy. If the plant bolts, no worries. Instead, use  the ferny foliage and fennel seeds as herbs to add a delicious, exotic flavor to dishes. (Jackie describes the seeds as “the original breath mint.”)

Luffa. Also known as Cee gwa or Chinese okra, Jackie describes luffa as “zucchini with taste.” She starts seeds indoors in April and plants them out in June. After the plants flower, you will see a gourd growing behind the bud, just like zucchini. Gardeners can harvest those young (under 6 inches) and stirfry them, but let a few fruits get big and dry on the plant to grow your own sponges. Jackie showed a sample that must have been 10 inches long and looked just like the expensive luffas for sale in personal care shops.

Mustard greens. If you like a little kick in your salad, try growing mustard greens. These are easy to grow and work well in beds where you are combining ornamental and edible plants. Jackie sows seed outdoors anytime between May 15 and July 15, and begins harvesting in June, continuing on through November. She recommends the varieties ‘Osaka Purple’ and “Giant Red’ for biting, but not overpowering flavor.

Fall radishes. While you can certainly grow a respectable radish in the spring — Jackie likes ‘Pink Beauty’, those harvested in the fall tend to be bigger and more flavorful. Jackie handed out samples of a pink-centered radish that she harvested last fall. It tasted sweet at first, then developed a bit of that radish bite. Delicious — and it did not taste like it had been in storage several months, though, of course, it had been. For fall radishes, plant between July 15 and August 15 and give the radishes 4 to 6 inches between plants. They need it because these radishes tend to get larger. Don’t harvest until the roots are at least 2 inches across. They can stay in the ground until temperatures are dropping into the 20s.  She recommends ‘Red Heart’, ‘Rose Heart’ and ‘Summer Cross’ varieties for fall growing.

Which unusual vegetables do you enjoy growing?