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Think Outside the Box — Plant Obscure Veggies for Fun and Taste

Celeriac and other lesser-known vegetables are well worth trying. (Henry Homeyer photograph)

Celeriac and other lesser-known vegetables are well worth trying. (Henry Homeyer photograph)

This year as you plan your garden, why not choose some lesser-known veggies? You might be surprised how easy it is to grow kohlrabi or rutabagas — and how tasty they are. I grow those, and several other vegetables that you might not have tried. Most are not terribly hard to grow. You could be the first on your block to grow artichokes.

Let’s start with sweet potatoes. Most New England gardeners don’t generally grow this vegetable, thinking that it’s a southern crop. It is, but you can do it. The trick is to grow it under black plastic, which increases the heat. It needs good rich soil, liberally amended with compost or aged cow manure. Start with little plants called slips, available from catalogs such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com).

Adequate moisture is key. Even if you leave an opening in the plastic for the plant, rainwater probably won’t soak the soil enough. Run a section of soaker hose under the plastic and water any time the soil seems dry. Soaker hoses are available at garden centers and are basically special hoses that ooze water very slowly.

Rutabagas, like Rodney Dangerfield, don’t get enough respect. They are easy to grow, rarely bothered by pests or diseases, and can substitute for potatoes in the kitchen. They look a bit like turnips, which do have a strong flavor, but rutabagas are mild. They are great in stews — they don’t get mushy the way potatoes do when you reheat the stew several times.

Plant rutabagas by seed in mid-June about 2 inches apart and thin to 6 inches apart for maximum production. Rutabagas can get big — a pound each or more, but do not get tough or less tasty even when they are large. They grow best in soil that is near neutral on the pH scale and is rich in compost.

Growing celery is best left to professionals. When I’ve tried growing it, the slugs loved it and the stalks were dry and stringy. But you can have that same celery flavor in your soups, stuffing and stews by growing celeriac, also known as celery root.

I start celeriac by seed in the house in late March or early April, but some better garden centers will offer plants already started. Celeriac loves moisture, so add compost to the soil to hold water, and water it during dry times. Plant about 6 inches apart.

Salsify and scorzonera are long, thin root crops with a somewhat nutty flavor. They need deep, loose soil as they can grow 8-12 inches long. But each is only an inch or less in diameter, so they don’t produce much food per plant (compared to carrots or rutabagas, for example). Plant directly in the garden and wait. They are slow growing, so plant early and harvest late in the fall. They are great in turkey stuffing.

Artichokes are beautiful plants that look good in a flower garden, too. In California they are perennials, producing year after year in deep black soil rich with moisture. I have started them from seed, but one must start them early in March for best results. Edgewater Farm in Plainfield sells them in small pots, so most years I buy them there.

Allow a 2-foot by 2-foot space or more for each artichoke plant. You will get one artichoke (which is really a flower bud) at the top of the plant, then side shoots with smaller artichokes after that, up to five more. None will be as big as the grocery store version. Be sure to pick them before they turn dry and open up.

My favorite of the odd ducks of the vegetable world is kohlrabi, which looks a little like a space alien: a round fat “root crop” that sits in the soil surface and has stems popping out of it like arms — and also leaves, of course. The vegetable is almost perfectly round and is actually a thickened stem. It comes in purple and green varieties. Eaten fresh in salads, it tastes something like a cucumber crossed with a radish. But they are good in stir fries or stews, too.

Plant kohlrabi seeds directly in the garden about 3 inches apart and thin to 6 inches. It is in the cabbage family (Brassica) and grows fast, ready for harvest in as little as eight weeks. Last year I grew a variety called “Kossak’ that is an 80-day variety, but it gets to be huge (8 inches or more) and stores well — Johnny’s Selected Seeds, the developer — says it will store for four months. It needs plenty of moisture, and like most veggies, plenty of compost in the soil.

Of the salad/cooking greens, think of trying orach. Seeds are hard to find — Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is the only place I’ve found that has them (www.rareseeds.com). This is a gorgeous purple-leafed plant that gets to be 3 feet tall, and is in the goosefoot family, which includes many varieties of weeds — but also spinach, beets and quinoa. If you let a few plants flower and go to seed, you will always have some volunteer plants in the garden, year after year. It has no special growing needs; it’s almost a weed, after all.

Gardening is supposed to be fun. For me, that means trying more than the usual veggies. So this year, get adventurous. Try kohlrabi, rutabagas or even an artichoke. You’ll be glad you did.

Henry Homeyer’s Web site is www.gardening-guy.com. You can reach him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net.