It seems to be something of a waste of time and resources to grow exactly the same vegetables as one can buy at the supermarket, particularly when the shop-bought ones are much cheaper than can be produced at home. This is especially true where gardens are small.
Ordinary orange carrots are a case in point. I don’t find that I can grow these for the same amount of money as I can buy them, even from somewhere relatively expensive, such as an organic vegetable shop. I also do not have the space to grow all the carrots we eat in a season. So, if I grow carrots, I grow rainbow carrots, which come in shades from white to purple, with various yellows, oranges and pinks. Although these are sometimes available in the shops, they are usually quite expensive.
Growing unusual vegetables can be quite a challenge, though. Plant nurseries usually stock seed of the same few cultivars of each vegetable. If you want to grow peas from seed, your choice of cultivar is “Greenfeast”, “Greenfeast”, or “Greenfeast”, whichever of the main seed companies you are buying from.
Because broad beans are seldom available in grocery stores, they are a good choice of plant to grow for yourself, but the seed available is “Aquadulce”, whether you go for Mayford, Kirchoff or Starke Ayers.
Some nurseries also stock seeds from other companies, for example, the very expensive but good Franchi range, or the Raw range.
A word of caution though; I bought some kale seed from Raw, because the picture on the packet clearly showed “Cavolo Nero” or dinosaur kale. When the seed grew, it turned out not to be that type of kale at all. It was the ordinary curly kale that you can buy as seedlings at any nursery, and which I find utterly flavourless.
For those who are happy to buy that way, there are on-line companies, such as Seeds for Africa and Glen Seeds, which sell heirloom vegetables and unusual cultivars.
Sometimes, there are unexpected sources of seed. The Organic Zone is selling a range of vegetable seed called “Sandveld Organics” and I found some salsify there. I have never grown this before, but it is a vegetable in the daisy family that produces a long pale root like a skinny parsnip. Apparently, the flavor is reminiscent of artichoke. If you leave it to grow past the harvest time, it produces a pretty purplish daisy flower in its second year.
I am also trying red kale and kohlrabi this year. Now, I need to find scorzonera, similar to salsify, but with a black root and a yellow daisy flower in the second year.
Sometimes, the more adventurous nurseries, such as Ferndale, sell seedlings that are slightly out of the ordinary. I have found “Cavolo Nero” kale, Jerusalem artichoke, radicchio and salad burnet there from time to time.
Jerusalem artichoke, which is nothing to do with Jerusalem, but is derived from “girasole” (sunflower in Italian), is North American. It grows up to 2m and produces masses of cheerful flowers that look like small sunflowers. It is the rather lumpy roots that are eaten. They have a flavor that some compare to that of true artichokes, but have the unfortunate side effect of causing flatulence!
Radicchio is a form of chicory and can either be developed into chicons or can be added into salads.
Salad burnet is a dainty plant. The leaves taste of cucumber and look elegant in salads.
My experiments with odd vegetables show an obsession with the colour purple. One year, with the help of Gigi and her daughter Susie, I grew some beautiful purple podded peas. Unfortunately, it was a very bad year for woolly bears, so I did not get much of a crop off them, alas.
Another time, I found some climbing “blue” beans for sale at Soil for Life. They made lovely purple bean pods, which were much easier to see, and therefore harvest, than green ones. They lost the lovely colour in cooking, though, and reverted to green.
Here is a red cabbage and a purple cauliflower from other years.
I tried ‘Purple Calabash” tomato from seed I bought at the Tokara rare plant show. They were lovely tomatoes, but I do not have a photo of the ones I grew, so here’s one from the internet.
I saw these purple flowered broad beans at Babylonstoren and hanker after them, but have never seen any for sale.
Of non-purple veggies, I’ve tried scarlet runner bean (Phaseolus coccineous), Globe artichoke, New Zealand spinach, and dune spinach.
It would be interesting to hear from any garden club members who have grown other unusual vegetables, preferably with a mention of where they got them.