Grow Unique Vegetables for a Special Garden

Expand your taste buds by growing romanesco cauliflower, chiltepin chiles and other unique produce in your garden this year.

By Wendy Kiang-Spray


January/February 2017

Romanesco Broccoli

Romanesco is a fascinating vegetable that's slightly sweeter and earthier than cauliflower.

Photo by iStock

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By the end of each winter, I like to have a garden plan that includes my favorite standbys, as well as a few new vegetables I’ve never tried. With such a huge variety of foods that are eaten around the world, plus a plethora of unique varieties of more-common vegetables, why not add new ones to our repertoires? Eating a wider variety of plants gives us a greater variety of nutrients, plus it gives us new tastes to keep our culinary experiences fresh. One of my favorite ways to discover new plants to try in my garden and kitchen is to try plants that are similar to, but distinct from, my favorite foods. Planting and eating this way gives me an advantage, as I already know a few of the best ways to grow a similar plant, and some of my favorite ways to eat it. Thus, by taking just one step away from beloved classics, I can try a range of new produce. 

Like peppers? Try the superhot chiltepin. 

A few cayennes are planted in my garden annually, but my new favorite hot pepper is the chiltepin, which ranks 50,000 to 100,000 on the Scoville heat scale. Compare this to the jalapeño at 2,500 to 5,000; the cayenne at 30,000 to 50,000; and the habanero at 100,000 to 350,000. I learned about these cranberry-sized, smoky, pungent, citrus-tinged peppers from my friend, whose mom makes a robust, flavorful hot sauce. Mrs. Salazar begins by boiling chiltepins, tomatillos, onions, salt and garlic, and then whirring it all in a blender with a dash of vinegar. She used to find these peppers growing wild in Guatemala, and pays a high price when she occasionally spots them in markets here near Washington, D.C. Chiltepins are the only wild chili native to the United States. They are usually found in southern North America and northern South America, but if you grow them yourself, these tiny bits of concentrated heat and flavor are only as far away as your garden. 

To grow: Start seeds indoors eight weeks before your last frost. Plant seeds a quarter of an inch deep. A seedling heat mat will help seeds germinate. When soil in the garden warms to 70 degrees, harden off seedlings and then transplant them about two feet apart. Though hot peppers generally thrive in full sun, partial shade is okay as chiltepins are naturally found under cover of larger plants, such as mesquite. Harvest at the green or red stage, depending on how ripe you prefer the flavor, by carefully pulling off the small peppers. 

Like arugula? Try mizuna. 

When you want a break from arugula but still crave the bite of a zingy green, try beautiful, feathery, bright green mizuna. This slightly spicy leafy green is high in vitamin C, folate and iron, and rich in antioxidants. It can be started earlier than most spring lettuces and is usually unfazed by surprise frosts. 

To grow: In early spring, sow seeds directly in the garden a quarter inch deep. As plants grow, thin them to about 10 inches apart. Harvest when plants are at least five inches tall by cutting what you need. Mizuna quickly regrows for another crop in just a few weeks.

Like zucchini? Try luffa gourds. 

Chinese luffa gourds can be eaten just like zucchini or any summer squash and are excellent cut into chunks and stir-fried. The luffa is a tall, vining plant and will grow prolifically on a trellis about eight feet tall. Similar to zucchini, luffa requires regular harvesting. While zucchini will turn into immense monsters if you step away from the garden for too long, luffa gourds will turn into…sponges! Yes, if left on the vine all season, these soft, delicious gourds will grow fairly large, dry out, and then the outer peels can be removed to reveal scrubby fibrous skeletons inside. 

There are two types of luffa, angled and smooth. Both can be harvested young for eating. The smooth type has a wider circumference and is great for both eating young and using as sponges. This is the type that produces the long bath sponges for sale in stores. If you don’t plan to grow for sponges, look for the angled type for its superior texture and flavor.

To grow: Sow seeds directly in the garden when the soil begins to warm. Or, in zones colder than Zone 7, start seeds indoors about six weeks before last frost. Plant seeds three-quarters of an inch deep. Luffa seeds can be slow to germinate, and soaking the seeds in water overnight can help. When outdoor soil warms to 70 degrees, harden off seedlings and plant along a trellis. Luffa vines quickly grow up to 14 feet tall. Pick smooth luffas when they reach about 10 inches. Angled luffas should be picked by the time they reach 18 inches. Luffas are best eaten at the immature stage before they toughen and get bitter. 

Like early spring radishes? Try daikon radish.  

Fans of daikon savor the mild tang of this gigantic white root prepared in many forms and found in all Asian cuisines. I love daikon julienned, pickled and stuffed into Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches. Daikon can be grown in early spring, though they are often planted in the fall for winter harvest. The large radishes are easy to grow, and because of their size, actually break up hard clods of soil, tilling the garden for you as they grow. 
To grow: In early spring, a few weeks before last frost when soil can be worked, loosen soil and dig in compost. Sow seeds directly in the garden half an inch deep and six inches apart. Daikon radishes grow best in cool weather. The heat of summer will make radishes bolt. For best taste, harvest by carefully digging with a trowel as soon as radishes are mature. They mature in approximately 60 days, and by then, you will see their tops popping up out of the ground.

Like potatoes? Try sunchokes. 

The perennial Jerusalem artichoke, or sunchoke, is in the sunflower family and is native to eastern North America. It provides a long season of yellow, three- to five-inch flowers atop six- to 10-foot stems. In the ground, delicious edible tubers grow and can be harvested any time from late fall until the ground freezes. Similar in appearance to ginger root, the slightly sweet tubers have a nutty flavor that some compare to artichokes. They’re delicious roasted, skin-on, with a drizzle of olive oil. Sunchokes are high in iron and potassium, and store carbohydrates as inulin, not starch, so they’re a good alternative to potatoes for people seeking a high-fiber, non-starchy, diabetic-friendly vegetable. Note, however, that inulin can cause intestinal upset if eaten in large amounts. 

To grow: In early spring, prepare a sunny spot by mixing compost into the soil and planting small, whole tubers four to five inches deep and 16 inches apart. A thick layer of mulch will help keep soil moist, though plants can survive occasional droughts. Sunchokes are unbothered by pests and are easy to grow, but can spread undesirably. To maintain control, cut flowers that appear mid- to late-summer to enjoy in arrangements. Plants will then use their energy to fatten tubers rather than produce seeds that may drop all over the garden. Sunchoke roots sweeten in cool weather. In late fall, use a garden fork to carefully loosen the soil and then dig around for the tubers with your hands. The smallest tubers can be replanted right away.

Like white cauliflower? Try an unusual variety.  

Cauliflower has been gaining attention recently as its mild flavor and versatility mean people looking to add more nutrition to their diets can transform cauliflower into riced, mashed or steak-like creations. But did you know this crucifer comes in purple and orange varieties, as well? One of the most interesting varieties is Romanesco. Rather than fluffy-looking “curds,” this chartreuse head is built of buds forming a perfect spiral. To top that, each bud is also composed of smaller buds that form perfect spirals. Taste-wise, this fascinating vegetable is slightly sweeter and earthier than white cauliflower with a crisp texture that holds up after cooking.

To grow: Start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before last frost. Plant seeds half an inch deep. Provide warmth by using a seedling heat mat to hasten germination. When the garden soil is still cool, but days are warmer than 45 degrees, harden seedlings off by gradually exposing them to the outdoors over a few days. Transplant seedlings to the garden about two feet apart. Romanesco, like cauliflower, thrives in consistently moist and rich, fertile soil. When you see tight, firm buds (at about 75 to 100 days), harvest by cutting the head off the base of the plant. If the weather stays cool for long enough, the plant may produce smaller heads after the central head is cut. Pests such as cabbageworms may overwinter, so rotate your crops the following spring. 

Like pumpkins? Try kabocha squash. 

If you’ve planted pumpkins, you know they’re easy to grow if you have some space. Other varieties of winter squash are just as easy to grow, and they come in a huge array of shapes, sizes, colors, textures and tastes. Kabocha, high in beta-carotene, iron and vitamin C, is a delicious and nutritious choice. This squash is typically a mottled green that grows to a manageable size of 3 to 5 pounds and has the familiar taste of a pie pumpkin but is even sweeter and nuttier. Its flesh is also drier, making it a great base for baked goods and savory dishes. 

To grow: In late spring, when chance of frost has passed and soil begins to warm, plant one or two kabocha seeds one inch deep in hills about six feet apart where they will have space to ramble. Kabocha requires consistent moisture in a sunny spot; a thick layer of mulch should help conserve water. Harvest when vines begin to die back, about 100 days from germination. The squash will look less glossy and will be a deep orange inside. To harvest, cut the squash off the vine leaving one to two inches of the slightly dried-out stem attached. Before using, leave kabocha out to cure in the sun or another warm place for two weeks.