More and more we find ourselves short on space, we long to live the good life, produce our own food and strive for self sufficiency but the reality is that very few of us have the luxury of the space to truly achieve this. So when you have to be selective on what you grow, how do you narrow it down and once you’ve selected your crops, how best are they enjoyed?
Let me introduce you to 3 of the unusual crops I grow and cook at home here in Suffolk.
- Japanese Hardy Ginger Zingiber Myoga
This is without doubt my favourite perennial edible to grow and I am constantly surprised by its relative obscurity in the western world. Originating from the temperate forests of Japan, China, South Korea and Vietnam, this herbaceous perennial is considered a delicacy particularly in Japan where it is deeply rooted in traditional culture and folklore, and even features extensively within ancient heraldic family crests. We all love ginger, but for most of us living away from the tropical equator, it is not a realistic crop for home growers. Myoga is a cold tolerant ginger that you can grow in your flower beds offering not one but 2 crops.
I am a huge advocate for foodscaping, my own garden is around 95% edible. This does not mean sacrificing beautiful borders brimming with flowers for one massive vegetable garden, nor does it mean squeezing cabbages and zucchini in amongst your shrubs and flowers, no no! My borders are ornamental and brim with beautiful flowers, shrubs and foliage at all times of year but every plant offers a harvest of some kind, from greens to herbs, fruit to spices. Japanese ginger is the perfect plant for foodscaping, the beautiful strap-like leaves make this a stunning foliage plant, there is even a variegated variety called ‘White feather’, and being a woodland native it is pretty happy in shady spots.
There is one last thing that makes Zingiber Myoga stand out from the crowd, unlike with the ginger that we are all used to, you do not eat the rhizomes on this plant. Instead Myoga offers 2 unique harvests and different times of year.
In Spring you can harvest around half of the new, tightly furled shoots as they first poke their little heads up above the soil, in much the same way as you would asparagus. Then toward the end of summer and into autumn the plant offers up something really special and this is what is so highly prized in Japan. Pink tinted buds of the orchid like flowers appear at ground level. These should be picked when the buds are still tight and, as they can appear some way from the plant can provide a genuine foraging opportunity in your own flower beds.
- New Zealand Spinach Tetragonia tetragonioides
Despite its humble image, if you have every tried to grow conventional spinach you will know that it is surprisingly tricky. Requiring systematic repeated sowings for a continuous supply it is seemingly able to magnetically attract every pest for miles around. If you do manage to prevent it from being munched down to a stump, spinach has a frustrating tendency to blot if you so much as look at it the wrong way.
So what if I told you there was a bolt proof pest resistant alternative, prolific to the point of being a thug that in my humble opinion, also wins on the flavour front and all from a single sowing? Warraigal Greens had been eaten as a staple of the indigenous people of Australia for centuries, but the first Westerners to try this costal native perennial spinach, were the crew from Captain Cook’s history voyage of discovery. It provided them with a vital way to stave off the effects of scurvy.
In grow zones down to about Zone 9 you can consider this a hardy evergreen perennial, in colder regions it may require some winter protection or, if it dies back completely, panic not, it self seed so prolifically it will pop right back up as Spring warms the soil.
Performing well in sun or shady, it is its costal heritage means it is tolerant of fairly poor soils and, perhaps unsurprisingly for an Australian native, is fairly drought proof too. It is worth noting that this plant is fairly high in Oxalic acid and though I know of many people who choose to eat it raw without issue, it is generally recommended that it is blanched before eating to break down the toxin.
Sow in May after soaking the seeds over night, a quick grower, this will be ready to eat in under 12 weeks and will continue to to provide tender sagittate leaves until the first hard frost. The tender tips are particularly fine and regular cropping in summer is strongly recommended as this will help encourage a bushier growing happy of this rampant sprawler. Beyond that this is a plant that seems to thrive on neglect, and will repay you with more delicious greenery than you can cope with.
- Tromboncino Cucurbita moschata
When we think of squash and pumpkins we don’t generally consider them an obvious choice for small space gardening, but the Italian heirloom tromboncino (literally meaning trombone) or zucchetta, from the Liguria region, offers something quite different to other squash varieties. Essentially it is a type of giant butternut squash, but unlike most other winter squash, the immature fruit of this plant can be picked at around 40cm long and used as a zucchini, where they offer the added advantage of retaining a slightly firmer texture when cooked than most summer squash. Alternatively the fruit can be left on the vine to fully mature and ripen, where they elongate to an astonishing size, easily exceeding a metre in length. the skin turns from green to a beautiful blush orange as it cures and hardens. It can then be stored for winter and I have known them to last well over a year.
They are fairly resistant to the pests and diseases that can plague most other squash, and are prolific producers. I grow many varieties of both summer and winter squash and the tromboncino is always the first to set fruit and the last to succumb to frost. This prolific nature means you don’t have to choose between harvesting the immature fruit, or letting them mature, it will provide you with plenty of both over a long season.
Gravity is required for tromboncino to grow straight, without that they will naturally curl into all manner of elaborate spirals and curls. As a result the best way to grow this versatile heirloom is straight up. Its natural vining habit makes it a voracious climber and are perfect for growing over an arch spanning a pathway. This is a great way to use the void spaces in your garden where you usually would not be able to grow anything, and means the soil footprint of one or two plants is tiny, only requiring around 30cm of space, though you may occasionally find yourself colliding with the odd giant hanging squash. The flavours are rich and nutty like a butternut but without the sweetness.