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.
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.
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