As the seed catalogs slide into your mailbox and you begin to think about next year’s garden, here are a few vegetables to keep in mind. These are fairly common crops that for various reasons may not be the first ones chosen by beginning gardeners, or that more experienced gardeners might have tried and given up on. But I think they’re worth a chance!
This is an odd-looking vegetable, to be sure. That round ball is actually a swollen stem; otherwise, it’s just a cabbage. Or at least a member of the cabbage family. It tastes… cabbagey. You can eat kohlrabi raw, or cooked in various ways: steamed, boiled, stir-fried, roasted. The leaves are also edible. I am very fond of kohlrabi, not least because it’s super-easy to grow. You can start your own seedlings inside or sometimes buy them, and harvest about 50 days from transplant; or you can plant seeds directly in the garden and add 2-3 weeks to that. Kohlrabi likes cool weather, spring or fall. It will need some protection from insects; floating row cover is great. You can get green or purple varieties; purple looks striking in the garden but you’re going to peel off the skin and it’ll be green underneath.
Don’t skip this page in the catalog! There are treasures here. If you are frustrated by how long it takes to grow heading cabbage, or you’re bored by kale or scared of mustard, browse the brassicas known collectively by their origin in Asia and read the descriptions. You’re sure to find something that appeals, with beautiful leaves or crunchy stems, mild or spicy flavor. And, like kohlrabi, they are quick to grow; you can harvest before hot weather makes them bolt. I recommend komatsuna, tatsoi, or one of the smaller versions of pak choi, but let your heart choose.
Root vegetables do want good soil to grow in, but you’ve been working on that, right? And some are pickier than others. A lot of gardeners start with carrots and get frustrated; I assure you that beets are more cooperative. Start them in April and you’ll eat them in June; just remember that you must thin the seedlings along the way. You can toss the leaves from the thinnings into a salad; leave room for three-inch roots to grow in between.
Some people just don’t like beets, I know. If this is because you found canned beets disgusting as a child, try a recipe for fresh beets roasted and you might change your mind. But it’s just a fact that our taste buds differ, and there’s a compound in beets called geosmin that… well, it’s what makes the air smell like soil after a rain, which is lovely, and it’s also what makes beets taste like dirt, which may be lovely or gross depending on how you process it. I loooove beets, but I accept that others don’t. In any case, they are interesting plants; here’s a fascinating blog post all about beets and their geosmin, betalains (pigments), and rings.
Another root vegetable that’s quick and easy to grow. If you’ve only ever grown Purple Top White Globe, that’s a perfectly fine turnip, but there is a whole other world out there and again it’s largely centered in Asia. For a tender treat that you can eat cooked or raw, try some of the varieties of round white Japanese turnips, or venture out into pink-skinned or long thin purple-skinned types.
I almost gave up on spring peas a decade back, because they never seemed to produce before it got hot and the vines wilted. And I hate to call anything about the wild changes in our climate a weather pattern. But the last few years have been really great for peas. There’s enough warm weather early in the spring – like, really early – to get the seeds to germinate, and then it gets cool again and stays cool, long enough that putting in the summer crops is a big pain, but just the right amount of time to get a bumper crop of peas. Who knows if that will last, but peas are worth a try. There’s nothing like fresh peas. I like snow peas and sugar snaps, but shelling peas don’t take that much longer to grow, so if you like to sit on the stoop and toss peas and pods in different buckets, go for it.
Potatoes are often last on gardeners’ lists because they’re cheap to buy and they do have pest issues. But they really are fun, especially if you have kids – discovery underground! – and, with a little attention, not difficult to grow. And there are so many cool types that you can’t easily find in stores.
You can grow potatoes with multi-colored skins, with blue or red flesh, or you can grow your own pricey little fingerlings. Seed catalogs seem to offer either a small amount of seed potatoes (which aren’t seeds but actual potatoes you cut up and plant; what you’re growing are clones of a mother plant) for a fairly high price, or those cheaper per pound but more than you can fit in your garden (at least if your garden is small, like mine). You might want to get a bigger order and split it with a friend.
Potatoes need to be planted low and “hilled up” by piling soil on them as the stems grow. This can be done by planting in a trench, by filling up a raised bed around them, by tucking straw around the plants, or by planting in a container and adding soil gradually. Containers can be big pots or fabric bags, but you will not get much of a crop from them unless you water and fertilize regularly. Potatoes do get attacked by Colorado potato beetles and sometimes other pests, so bug patrol is necessary. You can use floating row cover over the plants to keep the bugs off.
It’s not officially winter yet, but it’s time to start thinking spring! What will you grow?
By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener