Why I Grow "Exotics"

People often ask me why instead of sticking with the tried-and-true “American” vegetables, I fill up space in the demo garden and my own garden with plants like molokheya, mouse melons and misome (and no, it’s not because they begin with M).  You know, those exotic vegetables.  The ones you’re not sure you’re going to like, the ones grandma and grandpa didn’t grow or that you’ve never heard of – the ones I probably never heard of until the seed catalogs arrived!

Armenian cucumber at Monticello

I have a few reasons.  First, while these vegetables may be unfamiliar to those of us whose forebears came to North America a long time ago, some are standard fare for our fellow Americans whose families have more recently arrived from all over the globe.  Maryland has a wonderful multicultural society and I feel that part of the mission in my county’s Master Gardener demonstration garden is to demonstrate what’s available in that society.  This may mean stepping a little out of my comfort zone or my personal heritage – and that’s fun and educational.  I also appreciate advice from those to whom these plants are more familiar!  But the more I grow new plants, the more I find that while incorporating them into my cuisine requires flexibility, there’s nothing especially “exotic” about growing them.  It’s the same routine of finding out when to plant, how to protect from insects and disease, when to harvest, and so forth.

West India Gherkin at Monticello

Secondly, just about all the plants we grow in vegetable gardens are exotic.  Very few of our edibles (especially when you discount fruit and nuts) are native to North America, never mind Maryland.  The rest, including our most standard vegetable fare like lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash, were all brought here from somewhere else, often by complicated routes that took seeds and plants through several continents and produced new varieties along the way.  (I’ll be writing a lot more about this in the next year, since the 2011 demo veggie garden will be arranged geographically.)  Every new wave of immigrants has brought immigrant plants along; there’s no reason to declare a moratorium on additions to our dinner plates or our gardens.  And many of the vegetables eaten by the early North American colonists (or their descendants for centuries afterwards) are no longer part of our regular diet, because they have become less popular with time, or because they don’t ship well and so are not sold in supermarkets.  When’s the last time you had salsify or Good King Henry?

Another reason for trying new plants has to do with the principal purpose of our demonstration garden, all of it and not just the vegetable part: to show what plants grow well in Maryland, specifically in Montgomery County, and to teach visitors something about how to grow them and why.  You can visit our garden to learn why native plants work well in your landscape, why it’s important to attract pollinators, and which vegetables will be most likely to survive stresses and make it to your kitchen.  Some of the “exotics” are prime examples of what does well here, including a lot of tropical perennials that prosper as annuals in our nearly tropical summers.  Malabar spinach is one of these.

As our climate changes, with warmer temperatures and more extreme weather events such as droughts and heavy rains, we’re going to need to be flexible about what we grow in our gardens (and I think more of us are going to be depending in part on growing our own food).  The plants and varieties that have been tried-and-true, the ones our grandparents grew, may continue to be reliable or they may fail to produce as well as they once did.  In the demo garden and at home, I’m going to continue to experiment and stretch boundaries, to find out which new hybrids, which old heirlooms, which vegetables from the other side of the globe do the best and produce the most reliable, nutritious and delicious food.  I’ll make mistakes (okay, pepino melons just do not grow to maturity here, though I’ll try again in ten years or so) but with the help of lots of other people I’ll make some discoveries and pass them on.

There are other reasons to grow certain food plants.  I am all for the idea of making food gardens pretty so we can enjoy them and might be allowed to put them in our front yards, and the larger a palette that we have to design from the better.  Some vegetables appeal more to children and may help them toward healthier diets.  Sometimes you don’t want a multicultural garden; you want a garden that expresses pride in one heritage or culture:  depth rather than breadth.  And of course small gardens force some choices, and make growers want to stick to what they know will work.  But unless you have a specific reason to limit what you grow – why not try something you haven’t grown before?  It might turn into your new tried-and-true!


By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener

10 Comments on “Why I Grow "Exotics"

  1. I loved your interesting and informative blog. It has inspired me to try some new veggies in my garden next year.


  2. What an inspiring article! Thank you!
    This is my first year for growing Malabar spinach and Jeruselem Artichokes and now you have motivated me to experiment even more as I start to plan next years garden. My first choice will definitely be mouse melons as you have taught me not only how cute the vines are but how delicious the melons are!! My only problem is space….so little sunny space and so much to grow.


  3. Hurray, another mouse melon convert. Thanks, Mary. Space is really a problem, but if you think in terms of growing things upwards on trellises that helps a bit. Also, if you have an part-shaded area with at least 4 hours of sun you can grow a lot of leafy greens there, saving real sunny space for the veggies that need it.


  4. Erica – you've touched upon so many important points here. I love your explanation for why you're trying these “exotic” vegetables. Plus, it's just darn fun, right? With the Internet, we're also able to try different types of vegetables and cook them authentically as well.

    Let's talk next spring – I'd love for you to see my dad's garden. It's sunny and large and filled with Chinese vegetables. When I really ponder it, much of what he does is probably (consciously or subsconsciously) an effort to recreate the China he knew as a child. From his use of bamboo as mulch, supports, etc. to the gourds he cuts into tools. It's not an issue of money as he is very well off. Actually USING his “exotics” probably allows him to remain connected to his childhood and culture.


  5. Great article, Erica! I've had lots of challenges with my too-shady patio garden, and malabar spinach was one of the most successful things I grew this year. For next year, I'm going to branch out and try more unfamiliar vegetables, to see what works.


  6. Hi Jo – glad the malabar spinach is working for you. In part-shade you may have good luck with leafy vegetables, of which there are so many beyond just lettuce and spinach. Try upland cress, misome, baby pak choi – lots of possibilities!


  7. This is great stuff, Erica! Is it possible that you could write a short reference sheet on the “exotics” you have tried that do work in this region, and any tips you want to offer on growing them? I bet that would be popular information when people start ordering seeds in a couple months!


  8. I have tried Malabar spinach, but found it too gelatinous for my taste. I planted upland cress some years ago, and it is a prolific self-seeder, as is the clary sage I planted from seed. I tried growing sunchokes one year, but there was a summer drought, it was sandy soil, and they did not do well. I will have to try them again, now that I am at a different location with begger soil. Haven’t tried Scorzonera or sorrel yet, and the sea kale I got was not advertised as nor did it function as a perennial. I would love to try ground nuts, but thought I would use them as a ground cover, rather than on a trellis. Is that possible?

    Also, is it possible to plant any of these perennial veg in the fall?


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