Occasionally a new vegetable variety appears on the seedling rack at our local garden centre, but as far as I am concerned, it’s not often enough. Part of the secret to keeping the vegie garden fun and interesting is finding different and quirky varieties to grow. Luckily there is no end to the unusual and bizarre vegetable varieties offered by the heritage seed companies. The great news is they are generally hardy selections handed down from generations of avid growers who once depended on their food gardens for survival.
It’s so important that we set the spring vegetable garden up right. We need to ensure the range of seeds and seedlings we select is suitable for the warm season ahead. Not only will this ensure that our plants thrive, but pest and diseases will be kept to an absolute minimum.
Now is the time to be planting chillies, silverbeet, tomatoes, zucchinis, beans, corn, eggplant, rockmelon, pumpkin, salad greens, parsley, basil – the summer vegetable and herb range goes on and on. Let me introduce you to some less well-known versions of the popular vegetables we have grown for years.
Bush beans have been cultivated in South America since 500BC. Rich in vitamins A, B and C, they are easy to grow in any healthy, well-drained soil – what’s not to love about these backyard favourites? To colour up our spring vegie garden we grow a variety called ‘Royal Burgundy’. The long, dark purple pods are stringless and look sensational. When cooked, as if by magic, they turn an appetising dark green and taste delicious. ‘Purple King’ is a showy, heavy producing climbing bean that also turns green when cooked.
Cherry time capsicums are a delightful variety producing masses of small 5cm round fruit that turn rich red when ripe. Their sweet flavour makes them a welcome addition to our coleslaws and salads. The plants are highly attractive, very compact and are early producing.
Eggplant ‘Snowy’ produces pure white fruit that may look a little unusual, but tastes so delicious. The cylindrical fruit are produced throughout summer and well into autumn and really are a joy to have in the garden. Plant seeds in early spring to ensure a different take on Christmas snow.
There is no end to the weird and wonderful range of tomatoes; a favourite of ours is ‘Black Cherry’. An abundance of 25mm round chocolate-coloured fruit cover this semi-climbing variety from early summer until well into winter. They have a lovely sweet flavour and we often feast on these little delicacies while tending to the garden.
New Guinea beans are actually a gourd and the fruit can grow up to 2 metres long, making them quite a spectacle in the garden. They are a vigorous climber and when trained over a pergola or trellis can provide welcomed summer shade. They are best eaten when about 20cm long and taste similar to zucchini.
Chia may not be a plant you would expect to find in the spring vegetable garden, but this versatile Salvia is well worth growing. The seeds are popular in a wide range of kitchen dishes and contain up to 30 per cent protein. We add four tablespoons of seeds to a 400ml can of coconut milk and let stand for 30 to 40 minutes to make the most delicious chia pudding, best served with fresh diced fruit. The leaves can be used as a tea or tonic and the sprouted seeds make a tasty addition to salads. Chia plants prefer an open sunny position and grow to about a metre in height. They produce clusters of attractive purplish-blue flowers.
White asparagus is a French culinary delight. The great news is that it really is not that hard to grow. Asparagus crowns are often purchased when two years old. Seedlings are also an option, but good size spears usually don’t appear until the third to fourth year. To produce the elusive white asparagus, mound the mature crowns with 30cms of compost-rich soil. As the spears push out of the ground throughout early to mid-spring, the mounded soil ensures the new season’s asparagus is protected from sunlight and so the spears are blanched. Run a knife through the mounded soil, feeling for the 15-20cm long sprouts, then sever them at ground level. Purple asparagus is readily available from most garden centres, especially as seedlings, and requires no additional effort to enjoy its antioxidant-rich bounty. Picking and eating raw asparagus spears fresh from the garden is one of the great joys of spring. We normally stop picking around late October and let the spears rise up to over a metre in height, producing plumes of fine fern-like foliage. Asparagus plants will go on producing for well in excess of 20 years and are rarely troubled by pests or disease.
Dwarf Greek basil can be found in pots at the front door of many homes throughout Greece. The adorable miniature-leafed basil has an intense sweet flavour ideal for salads and general cooking. The small, dense, dome-shape plants are perfect for growing in containers. Seed is best sown early and then again late in the season to ensure a continuous supply.
About the author – Steve Wood
Steve is a WA nurseryman with over 35 years experience and is a local ABC radio garden talkback host. He is also a presenter with the Greenfingers TV series and runs Great Garden Environmental Workshops. Steve has an extensive organic fruit and vegetable garden and is a passionate promoter of homegrown produce.