It’s seed catalog season! If you’re anything like me, you’re paging through them right now marking possible purchases for the 2022 growing season. (Happy New Year, by the way.) On my first pass, I always mark much more than I can plant in my own gardening space, and now that I’m no longer choosing what to grow in the Derwood Demo Garden, my selections are further limited. I have to make sensible choices, darn it. Nothing too big or aggressive, or that takes too long to produce, or is marginal in our climate, or that I’m not sure I like to eat. Good thing I’ve had all that practice trying and failing.
Now, I would never limit anyone else’s choices, or tell them they won’t succeed at what they’re attempting. I’m usually all for stretching the boundaries. So the spirit of the list below is not to discourage; it’s just to pass on what hasn’t worked for me. Maybe some of these plants have done great for you, or you’re convinced you can get past the challenges. But if your space and time is limited and you have to be realistic, feel free to make use of my what-not-to-grow advice.
Here are some edible plants that have tempted me over the years. I have tried them all (with one exception) and they have been disappointing or difficult. This is very much a partial list, by the way. (I have tried a lot of plants.)
Artichoke. There’s a reason most of our artichokes are grown in California. Now, people do manage to produce these delicious flower buds in the Mid-Atlantic area, but they are generally on the small side, and getting the timing right is a challenge. If you want to grow them from seed this season, you should be starting them indoors NOW, or at least in the next couple of weeks. Then you have to transplant them outdoors at the exact right time and hope for a nice long spring (without temperature spikes and plunges). They are naturally perennial; they might produce in the first year if you do everything right, but then they may not make it through our winters (though that may be changing). In my opinion, artichokes take up garden space that could better be used for a more reliable crop. If you have the acreage and want to grow an impressive plant in the same family, cardoons do better in this climate, and even if you don’t end up eating the stalks, you will get some splendid flowers.
Celery. Most of this list is going to include the words “in our climate.” Again, you can produce celery in this area, but it’s likely to rank poorly against what you can buy (cheaply) at any supermarket. In our wildly variable springs and hot early summers, celery has skinny stalks and a strong flavor. If that appeals to you, try the herb known as “cutting celery” and put it in your soups. If you do want to try celery (or its relative grown for the root, celeriac), find some detailed growing instructions and follow them. Oh, and this is another one you’d need to start indoors pretty soon.
Fennel (bulbing). This one is more of a temptation since it’s more expensive to buy, but our climate again defeats it, especially in the spring, when it likes to bolt. Fall is supposed to work better; if you insist, you could give it a try, starting seeds indoors and transplanting outside when it’s still too hot in order to get a harvest before it’s too cold and dark. Or you could plant leaf fennel, which is reliably perennial here; it doesn’t make a bulb at the base, but gives you lots of tasty leaves and seeds to flavor your food. Just watch out because it self-seeds with a vengeance.
Quinoa. Wouldn’t it be great to produce your own quinoa in your backyard instead of buying it? Yes, if (let me hear you) the climate was right for it. Every time I’ve tried, I’ve ended up with moldy wet seed stalks at August harvest time. You might have better luck, but I’ll also note that you’d need a big garden to produce enough for more than a meal or two. Now, quinoa leaves are edible and super-nutritious, but they are a close relative of lambsquarters, which you likely have already growing as a weed for free.
Safflower. Maybe I’m the only one who’s wanted to grow this striking flower that you can dry and use as a saffron substitute, but if not, let me warn you that it sulks in humidity and clay soil. I think I got one flower before the whole thing collapsed. There is probably a way of getting it to produce around here, but I don’t have the patience.
Let me note here that some plants are hard to grow here not because our climate is too hot but because the hot weather doesn’t last long enough. I tried pepino melon (a tomato relative) twice before concluding that there’s not enough time for it to mature before frost. It doesn’t appear in catalogs as often as it used to, so probably other people have figured this out. If you have a greenhouse, you might be able to grow some of the many cool little nightshades seed suppliers will try to sell you, and actually get them to produce. Otherwise, just grow tomatoes.
On that topic, jicama is tempting to try, but it has three strikes against it. This member of the legume family requires a really long growing season (about 110 days), so you need to start it indoors well ahead of transplanting into the garden (though it would enjoy our climate). It produces long, rambling vines that like to climb trees, so it’s not for small gardens. And to top things off, the vines are toxic (leaves, flowers, pods). This is why I’ve never grown this plant; we might have had the room at the demo garden, but couldn’t risk poisoning visitors who thought it was a bean.
Lingonberries sound great to try especially for regular IKEA customers, but we are not Scandinavia. The recommended zone range bottoms out at 7, but that’s not our zone 7. The heat and humidity are just too much. You might manage to grow these in Western Maryland in the mountains, but I don’t live there so my attempts have been a total failure.
And finally, a plant that grows too well! Perilla or shiso (or a number of other names) is a tasty leaf vegetable or seasoning commonly used in Asian cuisine. It does fine in our climate; the problem is that it will take over your garden if you let it go to seed, and in fact it’s invading our forests and fields as an invasive plant. Please grow this only if you take responsibility for deadheading it as soon as the flowers start to fade, if not sooner. Don’t let it spread. I’ve had the same problem with amaranth though so far the invasive potential seems to be less.
If you have questions about any other edible plants you’re considering, try doing a search in this blog and one of us may have written about them. Or leave a comment. Also please leave comments if you’ve grown the above with success! I’d love to know how. (As long as the answer isn’t “move to the Pacific Northwest.”)
By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.