Why I Love Novelty Crops and Growing Something Different Each Year

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Artichoke buds

Like many of you, I began the year with my nose stuck in a seed catalogue. I'm checking out comely carrots and spending too much time scrutinising broccoli, but I'm also looking for something odd to grow that's either new to me or I haven't grown it for a long time. I call it my novelty crop, chosen mostly to see how it tastes or looks, and whether or not it's a good fit for my garden.

Last year my spring experimental subject was globe artichokes, which I had tried and failed with several times before, but a gardener's curiosity knows no bounds, so I decided to have a go at it again. After starting the seeds indoors in January and exposing the little plants to serious chilling in March and April, my brilliant artichokes made a nice crop of buds in late June. After I presented steamed artichoke hearts at the table, Roger said "These are good, but is this all you get?" He had a point. The artichokes were successful as novelty crops go, but for the space they required, they fell short in terms of productivity in my climate.

Shallot seedlings

And so I'm back to onions for late winter seed-starting fun. There are so many different kinds that I will never run out of candidates, and it was only by experimenting that I discovered seed-sown shallots and elongated "topedo" onions, which I quickly promoted from novelty crop to garden staple status. If I had not gambled on something new, my garden might be missing these deliciously rewarding alliums.

Offbeat Life List Vegetables

Only gardeners can explore food crops at their most basic level, where seed, soil and sun come together. Without a doubt, many garden veggies deliver a home grown difference you can taste (carrots, potatoes and tomatoes come to mind), but it is only by trying new varieties – or entirely new vegetables – that you can make profound culinary discoveries. Have you grown kohlrabi? Scarlet runner beans? Or how about 'Flashy Trout's Back' lettuce, known as 'Forellenschluss romaine' in its Austrian homeland? I would put these on any gardener's life list of things you must grow before you die, and I'm sure you gentle readers will have many more worthwhile suggestions.

You simply cannot get bored with gardening when you include a few novelty crops in your crop lineup, whether you decide to try dark purple tomatoes or beautifully marked 'Yin Yang' beans. I like to try different edible flowers, too, which make cooking more fun. Last year we nibbled two types of marigold, but I think this year I'm circling back to nasturtiums.

Purple tomatoes 'Indigo Rose'

Watch What You Ask For

One lesson I learned the hard way is to watch novelty crops closely because there may be a reason why few people grow them. One year I grew Nigella sativa with the intention of harvesting the black seeds as a spice, which I did. Only I didn't get all of them, and for the next two seasons, the nigellas went thug and became an irritating weed. An inedible descendant of some ornamental gourds I grew three years ago keeps coming back, too, but (for now) I've accepted it as an ornamental useful for pleasing bees in late summer.

Trying new crops of any kind helps to keep your curiosity level high, which is one of the ways gardening benefits your sense of well being. What wonders will tomorrow bring? Will the seeds you planted burst forth as tiny plants? Vegetable gardeners live in a constant state of suspense of their own making, which is what this part of the gardening year is all about. Personally, I'm excited about the late blight resistance now available in several newer varieties of tomato, and pie pumpkins have lately become one of my pet crops. I have not yet grown 'Winter Luxury', so I'm looking forward to my first encounter with the heirloom queen of pie pumpkins. Even with decades of veggie gardening behind me, I still get excited about trying new things.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"I grew 6 artichoke plants from seed two years ago and have been astonished at the abundance of the crop this year. In all we had at least 8 heads on each plant and I ended up having to give away some and pick and dry the left overs for flower decorating. I intend to plant a few more this year in the borders of the garden as the heads seem to attract literally swarms of bees once they mature into beautiful purple heads "
Adam on Friday 3 January 2014
"One thing that has always fascinated me has been different growing techniques. One I stumbled on some years back was pruning broccoli. After the main head is taken and the stump starts to branch, remove all but the top one of the new branches, they break off real easily. The remaining branch will produce a very respectable sized head, if all the other competition has been removed. In this way a single planting will produce a crop all season long, especially if various initial heads are harvested at different times, provided watering and extra feeding is also provided. Just keep each plant to a single leader. Also space coles well enough to interplant with flowers that draw native wasps and hornets. They will feed on the nectar in the flowers and hunt out the green worms in the coles to feed their own young, reducing the need for insecticides. They will also eat meat themselves, especially later in the summer. It is quite a scene to watch a group of hornets take apart a cricket in a matter of seconds. One last thing. Nearly everybody has some aging related gardener who has some sort of garden heirloom. Those are real fun to play with and rewarding to maintain for family history and continuity. One thing about most heirlooms is that, if not always highly productive, they tend to be very dependable and they come back true. "
hawkeye on Friday 3 January 2014
"Barbara, thank you for putting a name to the experimentation I do each season in the garden: novelty crops. For the winter garden this year it's kohlrabi, purple cauliflower and 'Bull's Blood' beets grown more for the leaves than the beets. My garden is small, only about 130 square feet devoted to vegetables so choices have to be made. I'm sorry you didn't know to eat the artichoke "petals," or at least dip and slide them through your teeth to get the softer part. It would be a tremendous amount of work and resources to only harvest the hearts. We eagerly await our first artichokes in April. Thanks for another great article."
Susan Martin on Sunday 5 January 2014

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