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.

| January/February 2017

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. 

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