oddball edibles: unusual vegetables to grow, with niki jabbour

I KNOW A LOT of gardeners, including myself, who might be called oddballs. But with help from Niki Jabbour, let’s be more polite and talk about oddball edibles instead: unusual and unexpected vegetables you can grow but might skip over in the catalogs—or maybe they’re not even in the catalogs you’re reading, but rate being tracked down.

Niki helped convince me of that, as part of my annual wintertime seed series. She is author of “The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year No Matter Where You Live,” and a contributor to the blog Savvy Gardening dot com. She also creates the award-winning radio program, The Weekend Gardener, heard throughout Eastern Canada.

Most relevant to this discussion, though: she grows a global range of vegetables and other edibles—from the world’s craziest cucumbers and edible gourds, to “Chinese artichokes” that aren’t artichokes at all, to oddball salad ingredients and even rice, quinoa and more.

Read along as you listen to the Jan. 2, 2107 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

q&a on oddball vegetables to grow, with niki jabbour



Q. Welcome back to A Way to Garden, Niki Jabbour. Happy seed-shopping season.

A. Isn’t this the best time of year? I love talking with fellow oddball gardeners. [Laughter.]

Q. I’m glad you embrace the oddness.

A. I do. It kind of what makes my garden interesting—all the interesting queer, quirky vegetables and edibles that I like to grow.

Q. A million years ago, when I first worked at “Martha Stewart Living” magazine as the garden editor, we invented these stories called glossaries—where you got to see every variety of (fill in the blank) vegetable—and I was in charge of those. I would call in, like at pumpkin harvest time, 100 different varieties of unusual pumpkins and squash. We’d have these insane collections, so I’ve been into this oddball thing for a long time. [Laughter.]

A. The great thing is that seed companies and seed collectors are into it, too, so it’s not that hard to find unique, fun, interesting things to grow—and easy things to grow in your vegetable garden.

Q. Thanks to your 365-day book, I know you best as a master of season extension–harvesting things even in winter in Canada, you brave soul (or you brave oddball). [Laughter.]  But what got a gardener such as yourself in Nova Scotia, of all places, on the path toward a collection of edibles from around the globe?

A. It’s not just the heirloom and quirky I am looking for; I love global vegetables. For me, it began with a snake gourd. I was growing them, as I do every fall for my kids. We like to see who can get the biggest snake gourd, the ones that grow 5 to 6 feet tall.

One year, though, my mother-in-law had wandered off into the garden in midsummer. She’s from a small mountain village in Lebanon, and has been in Canada for 30 years. She came up to get some parsley, and some of the early tomatoes, and then she looked over at this trellis that was already covered in this big snake-gourd vine, and there were the immature 1-foot fruits hanging from it.

She just kind of freaked out—saying “Oh my gosh,” and started talking in Arabic (which is a problem for me because I don’t speak Arabic). [Laughter.] But she was going on and on about how it’s “cucuzzi,” and cucuzzi to her is this summer squash vegetable. I did not know my ornamental gourds I was growing were edible. [Below right, an immature snake gourd in Niki’s garden.]

Of course we picked them all, so we never got any big gourds that year. But she was so happy, and made the most wonderful dishes from it. It kind of got me thinking what else I could grow that she might recognize from her childhood. Of course in Lebanon, the whole life revolves around fresh food and family meals. I was sure there were other things I could grow.

In my cupboard I have things like za’atar—but I was thinking, “What can I grow that will make her happy?” So I took off with other countries, and did research. And of course some things did not work in Nova Scotia, but so many things did, and they work in so many different places in North America. That’s sort of what sparked my little journey into global vegetables.

Q. I like when there is an emotional provenance to the story—just like when there is a provenance to the crops we then cultivate. They are historical; they have legends about them. They’ve been passed down through the generations, plus they have a meaning for us through someone close to us.

A. A lot of the vegetables I grow–and I grow ones from many different countries and of course heirlooms—but a lot of the Lebanese ones have become annual rituals for us. Like when we pick the chickpeas.

My father-in-law, who is not a gardener–although he freely dispenses gardening advice to me all the time—likes to grow chickpeas. He just buys them from a bulk store. They’re not a seed-company chickpea, but he plants them in his garden. Sometime in mid-to late-August, when the plants are lush and covered in plump little pods, everything gets pulled up at once, and it’s thrown on the big table outside, and everybody gathers around and plucks off those plump little chickpeas. We eat them like shell peas, right then and there.

It’s such a fun family thing we look forward to, and one of the reasons having your own garden just makes these things possible.

Q. And with both those examples you have given—the cocozelle, or cucuzzi or snake gourd, and the chickpeas or ceci as they say in Italian—they have different phases.  They are a delicacy, or an ornamental (in the case of the gourd), and if you didn’t grow it you probably can’t get it at the stage like the green chickpeas. I see them at our farmers’ market sometimes, like a specialty item.

A. That’s amazing.

Q. The Berkshires of Massachusetts and Hudson Valley of New York—we have a lot of people growing oddball things. We have a lot of oddballs here. [Laughter.]

A. I’ve been there and I love it—and that’s one of the reasons why.

Q. But you wouldn’t know that; you would never have had a chickpea except the kind that’s dried that you soak, or the kind in a can, if you had not grown it yourself.

You mentioned things Lebanese, so what about your palette of cucumbers, for instance. I bet you’re not satisfied with just your average cucumber at the moment, are you?

A. No. I haven’t grown a typical ‘Straight Eight’ cucumber in a very long time. I have to say that cucumbers this past summer were a bit of an obsession for me. Indian cucumbers, Asian cucumbers, Italian cucumber melons, the Lebanese cucumbers. I’ve searched for two decades for the cucumber that in Lebanon is called metki [photo above left, Niki’s father-in-law holding a metki]. I’ll grow different types, and I’ll tell my mother-in-law, “These are the seeds I got,” and she’ll be like, “No, not it.”

Q. Uh-oh.

A. Finally this year I found some, and they were perfect. I have a picture of her and my father-in-law holding up the first harvest of these cucumbers that they had grown up with in their village. It was so delicious. So yes, I grow a lot of different cucumbers.

The Indian cucumbers are kind of a pet favorite for me—‘Poona Kheera,’ and ‘Sikkim.’ ‘Sikkim’ is really cool because it’s almost reddish-brown, and looks like a giant russet potato when you harvest it. We kind of sliced them in half—and they were so delicious, and beautiful. I don’t know if you have ever tried some of the Indian cucumbers.

Q. Where do you find these?

A. The good news if that places like Baker Creek carry ‘Sikkim’ cucumbers. A lot of the smaller companies, and even Johnny’s and Fedco in Maine are carrying unusual things, so I don’t have to order from 50 different seed companies.

Q. Are these all vining types?

A. Yes, they’re vining. This year I did a complete garden renovation. I bulldozed the old garden, and built it up with 20 new raised beds. I created these trellises and tunnels, so I did grow everything vertically with my cucumbers. I don’t want them to sprawl on the ground because it wastes too much space. Everything grew vertically, and I have excellent harvests and (knock on wood) no cucumber beetles.

Powdery mildew was kept to a minimum, and the harvest just kept coming and coming—it was fantastic.

Q. So we have global cucumbers in your palette of oddballs. I think you told me you grow some kind of Chinese artichokes, which isn’t even an artichoke, so what is that?

A. I do grow Chinese artichoke, which is also called crosne—not really that attractive a name. And they aren’t really that attractive in terms of a vegetable. They are a long-season vegetable, and you eat the rhizome.

I get some of the tubers in late winter or early spring, and I pot them up when I start my tomatoes indoors, under grow lights, and about six weeks later I’ve got these nice plants, and they go into the garden.

I didn’t actually start harvesting then until late November. I just dug up the plants, and as you pull them up there are all these little 1- to 2-inch tubers that look like white grubs or tiny little Michelin men.

Q. Are these one of the Andean tubers?

A. From what I understand, no; they actually do hail from Asia.

Q. Interesting.

A. In France they are often called Japanese artichokes or Chinese artichokes. They’re in the Lamium family—they have square stems just like mint, but they’re not invasive. But if you do leave a few for the winter they will pop back up in spring. They’re so interesting.

You get these tiny, quirky little tubers. We just give them a quick rinse-off, using a toothbrush to scrub off the dirt. We blanch then for a minute or two in water, and then pan-fry them and oh my goodness, the crunch—and kind of a nutty flavor. And when you serve them to people they don’t know what they are eating, but they love it.

Q. [Laughter.] That is a totally new one on me, and I tell you what, Niki: I have seen a lot of plants. I’m looking that one up. [Taxonomically, they turn out to be Stachys affinis, FYI.]

A. I feel like I just won the lottery there. [Laughter.] I’ve got a new one for you.

Q. I haven’t always grown them all, but I have been around a lot of plants for a lot of years.

A. I should be asking you for advice. It’s one of the things I love about gardening—finding out what other gardeners love to grow and then trying it yourself as well.

Q. The last three or four years, a number of friends—different people from different regions of the country who don’t know each other–are all into ground cherries. What about you?

A. When I first grew them years ago, I just planted two plants, and gave them a little space—thinking they aren’t going to be that big. But they are a little bit of a thug in the garden. They really do grow low, maybe a foot tall, but they grow maybe 4 or 5 feet in diameter, and they pump out those tiny little fruits, the size of small marbles.

When they’re a beautiful deep golden color, I think they taste like butterscotch with a little bit of pineapple. They’re sublime. It’s my husband’s new favorite crop, and we make this wonderful topping for ice cream with them, with vanilla. A vanilla-ground cherry compote. It’s delicious, and again: They’re so easy to grow.

Q. I think they are in the genus Physalis, and are Solanaceous.

A. Yes, they are tomato cousins.

Q. So if people have grown tomatillos, the fruit almost might look like a tiny relative of that.

A. They do, because they start with a husk, like a tomatillo, and inside they produce like this half-inch diameter fruit. At first they are green; you don’t eat them when they are green. You wait until they fall actually from the plant. You just give your plant a tousle, and they fall down to the ground. Once the husks are brown and the fruits are that caramel color, they’re ready to eat. If some are still green you just put them on your counter for two or three days and they ripen.

Q. You confessed to growing chickpeas, which a lot of people don’t grow dry beans at all. I’ve just been experimenting with them the last few years, and it’s been fun and productive, and easy.

Do you really grow rice, or did I misunderstand that? I woke up this morning, before I came to the studio, and thought, “Did she really tell me that?” [Laughter.]

A. I did. One of our local heirloom seed companies was started a few years ago by this 16-year-old kid who was just obsessed with heirlooms, and is like 21 or 22 now.  He’s amazing, and collects all these unique seeds. He sent me a pack of Duborskian rice—an upland rice so it doesn’t grow in paddies, and doesn’t need flooding. It grows in regular garden soil and is short grain—a short-season, short-grain rice.

He told me you should start them in early April, but by the time I got my packet it was late April, and I thought, “Oh, no.” But I started like eight seeds, and they all came, and I had these eight wonderful rice plants in my garden all summer in a drought year. They didn’t get a lot of love from me, but they grew huge, and each one produced like 8 to 12 tillers—beautiful panicles of rice—and they were probably the most beautiful edible I have grown.

Everybody wanted to touch them, and asked about them, and in September they turned golden and we harvested the rice. It was easy to grow, and I think next year I will grow it in my containers with petunias and other ornamentals, because again they were so beautiful all season long.

Q. A lot of these grain-like things are very ornamental—like some of the sorghums, or quinoa. We think of them as nondescript but they’re not at all.

A. And I got a nice harvest from it. It’s one of those crops that I’ll never produce enough rice for my family’s needs. But we all had a nice feed from it, and it was such a fun talking point—and it showed my kids how much work rice can be, because you have to take the little husks off each one. You kind of pound them, which is fun, but on a large scale would be a lot of work.

You also mentioned quinoa, which is one of my favorite crops to grow, too, as is amaranth, but we don’t grow it for the seeds. We grow it for the leaves.

Q. The quinoa, or amaranth, or both?

A. Both. They’re cousins, and oftentimes the spinach chips I make, or the spinach in the pasta dishes, is quinoa—but just don’t tell my kids, OK? [Laughter.] They will eat it is they think it’s spinach, but not if they think it’s something weird.

Q. Any particular varieties? Some amaranths can be quite statuesque plants, so any good ones for the home garden?

A. Quinoa generally you’re going to get quinoa. For amaranth, it’s a tangle of different types. When I was writing my next book, it took me about a month to sort. Amaranthus tricolor is probably one of the best types to grow, and very easy. They can get very tall, but the key is you just keep cutting them off. As it gets to 2 feet tall, cut it down to a foot. It will branch and get thicker, and when it gets to 2 feet again, cut it off. That way you also don’t get seedheads—meaning you don’t get amaranth babies promiscuously popping up around your garden.

Q. [Laughter.] I have a lot of promiscuity in my garden—no amaranth, but between the insects, the rodents, the voles and some volunteer plants. Like if I have calendulas, which I love in the vegetable garden with their edible, beautiful flowers and appeal to nice insects. But let them go to seed and you will have them forever. [Laughter.]

A. I think I only planted them once, maybe 14 years ago. I let maybe 15 or 20 clumps come up around the vegetable garden. Every year the rest get tossed in the compost pile.

Q. What about your salad bowl—is it lettuce, or any oddballs?

A. I grow lettuce, because my kids and I like it, but my global quest also led me to different types of greens. One favorite in our garden is dandelions—Italian ones, not your typical dandelions. They’re basically a card-carrying member of the chicory tribe, with endive and radicchio and those guys.

They’re a staple ingredient in Italy, and they have such a great flavor. Some even have bright purple or red veins, so they are very beautiful in the salad bowl, too. That’s one of my mother-in-law’s favorites; she loves the bitter greens. So I do grow things like dandelions.

Another favorite we grow is purslane—which is a weed.

Q. Don’t let that one go to flower and seed, folks. [Laughter.]

A. The funny thing about the native purslane weed is that it’s low-growing, and forms like a mat, and it’s perfectly edible and delicious. But I prefer to grow some of the improved cultivars [above] that you can get from Johnny’s or any of the seed companies. They’re upright—maybe a foot or so tall, with dense branching, and they produce leaves that are probably four or five times the size of the weedy ones. They’re succulent, they’re crisp and mild, and it took me four or five years to figure out what my mother-in-law was asking me to grow.

Finally I just got on Google and searched up all these salad images, and figured out which one she wanted me to grow—the purslane. Now I grow it every year for her. We all love it. It’s delicious, and she just mixes the leaves with a little lemon juice and olive oil and salt, and it’s a delicious fresh garden salad.

Q. Any favorite lettuces to recommend?

A. It’s kind of boring but ‘Red Salad Bowl.’

Q. Me, too—I’m an ‘Oakleaf’ and ‘Black-Seeded Simpson’ type.

A. ‘Red Salad Bowl’ even does well for me in my winter coldframes. It’s so easy to grow, and is long-standing

Q. Among red ones I like ‘Merlot,’ which is so super-dark—from Wild Garden Seed in the Pacific Northwest.

I want to ask you about your All-America selection trialing you’ve been doing. That’s another of your branches of oddball-ness.

A. I was lucky enough in the summer of 2015 to go to California with All-America Selections, and I got to do a tour of seed-breeding companies, up the California coast.

Q. You went to the Pack Trials?

A. I did, too, a few years ago—it’s amazing. For people who don’t know, it’s almost like the trade show of the wholesale seed business, but you’re going from place to place.

Q. And we even got to talk to people who are breeding the new basil and peas and tomatoes in the fields, and ask them what they are looking for—disease resistance, dwarf growth, or what have you. It was eye-opening. Of course they are growing hybrid seeds, not heirlooms, but they make good garden selections as well.

What did you trial this season from the AAS list?

A. ‘Chef’s Choice Yellow’ tomato [above]—amazing. I grew it nearby my ‘Persimmon’ tomatoes, and these guys outperformed that. They were early and huge and the flavor was sublime. They were ridiculously productive; they didn’t stop until we got frost. The harvest just went on and on. I could talk about it all day. [Laughter.] There is also a ‘Chef’s Choice Pink,’ but the ‘Chef’s Choice Yellow’ was just such a great orange tomato—and I love orange tomatoes.

Q. So that one was a winner. Any other goodies?

A. Squash, like ‘Winter Honey Baby,’ a small, small winter squash. I loved it because it was a perfect size for a family for a meal; you didn’t have a whole lot of leftovers. Each plant produced like four to six of these. The plants are super-compact, so I’d plant them at the edge of my raised beds, so they would cascade over, which looked really cool. And then you’d get these big fruits hanging off and everybody was like, “What is that plant?” because it looked so neat.

I’m also a bit of a basil freak. So basil ‘Dolce Fresca’ was a really wonderful basil—very dense and compact, with a lot of stems, so it stayed nice and rounded in the garden. We harvested a ridiculous amount of basil from those plants.

Q. Now are the leaves big, like a Genovese type, or small leaves?

A. Big.

Q. So it stayed compact even though it has big leaves.

A. It stayed about 12-15 inches tall. It looks like a regular sweet basil—the same size leaves—but it just didn’t get that huge. Great in containers, and amazing in my raised beds, too.

Q. You’re a year-round gardener and harvested, and you have insulated tunnels and all kind of things going on. But when the ground softens, and you’re ready for your first outdoor 2017 sowings—what are those for you? I know; now you’re drooling, right?  [Laughter.]

A. I’m so all about the seed catalogs right now. Because I have coldframes and mini-tunnels, I will start planting in those as space opens up, in late February or early March. At that time I’ll start planting more spinach, or Swiss chard, or baby kale—even beets and carrots as we get into March. So I’ll be starting with greens, and assuming Mother Nature cooperates, hopefully late February.  If not, early till mid-March—and we’ll start harvesting months before most gardeners start their first sowings.

more from niki jabbour and me

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  1. Jane Sherrott says:

    There have been so many great ideas for new vegetables to grow in recent posts. I find it particularly exciting to learn about global varieties – the Lebanese tradition of eating raw garbanzos that Niki mentions has me thinking of the joy and closeness a family or friends experience when the are sharing fresh garbanzo beans. I love the idea of adding crunch to salads with high-protein, raw legumes and wonder if there are other legumes that can be safely eaten raw. I’m not sure, but I think lectins in raw kidney beans make them a no-no but I’m not sure about other legumes.

  2. Lynne says:

    I grew gooseberries this year for the first time – great productivity – but I didn’t get a single one! They all went to the resident woodchuck!!

  3. Stephanie says:

    I am always intrigued by unusual vegetables. I pore over unusual seed catalogs and pick out a few new things every year. I grew the tiny Mexican Sour Gherkin (Melothria scabra). It had an interesting flavor. They were so good I had none left to pickle. I plan to grow more of them this next year and possibly pickle them. I also grew Poona Keera cucumbers. They thrived! They were so good and never got bitter. I will definitely plant them again. I have grown several varieties of ground cherries for six years now and I love them to snack on.
    I also grew Achocha ‘Bolivian Cucumber’ (Cyclanthera brachystachya). It was an amazing vining plant with unique seeds, leaves, flowers and fruits like nothing I’ve seen before. It was difficult for me to germinate, but once it came up it grew very well. It definitely tasted like cucumber. And it kept for weeks in the fall. I used it in many stir fry dishes. I am definitely planting this again.
    One new thing I want to try to grow is Oca. An Andean root crop.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Last summer my compost pile produced a prodigious amount of winter squash. Some – like a 9-pound butternut – were familiar, but I also got an amazing variety of unrecognizable hybrids.

  5. Peggy Denton says:

    Part of the fun of gardening is trying new things, and even if they aren’t that good, it’s rewarding to know that I tried! Last year I tried oyster plant, and was absolutely grossed out by it! But, I did plant several different peas you recommended last year and loved them all!

  6. Karen says:

    Ginger. I dream of the gorgeous gardens you ladies create, but live on a property with a herd of deer and terrible hard, clay soil. My tiny strip of garden gives me herbs, which the deer don’t seem to notice, and rewards me with lots of flavor to add to the vegetables I get from the market.

  7. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    Based on visitors’ reactions, it must be my Chicago Hardy Fig Tree, enormous in its fourth year. No one seems to expect to see a fig in the ground, so they find it “odd”. I am used to it now, but it was quite an adventure in the beginning.

  8. Vicky Tewes says:

    I think one of the oddest crops I have grown was a tomato called Mille Fleurs or Thousand Flowers. It is a small golden salad size tomato that grows in huge clusters, upright on the tips of the plant. When many stems are harvested and bundled, they look like a bouquet of tomatoes.

  9. P says:

    Amaranth Red Garnet is great when small for salads and later as decoration. When separated (10-12 inches) & in full sun, they have reached 8 feet. Everyone who comes to the garden notices 8 foot tall red plants. They are smaller w less sun (3-6 feet).

    Seeds from previous year start growing early so you get an early maroon “ground cover” of edible plants (or transplant them). This year I have a bed covered w cardboard and will uncover parts at a time so they don’t grow all at once.

  10. Danielle Diakoff-King says:

    Couve Tronchuda. It’s an heirloom Portuguese Kale/ headless cabbage. Kind of a new veggie class of its own. Apparently it’s the main ingredient in the Portuguese national dish, Calo verde. Can’t wait to try it… We’ll see what it tastes like soon!

  11. P says:

    The Fedco site shows the Duborskian Rice is sold out. But Fruition Seeds (Naples, NY) has seeds. Petra or Matthew might be interesting guest(s) for those who would like to try rice. And they might have seeds for other less common plants we could hear about.

  12. mark christina says:

    I grow turnips . nobody I know likes them. My grandfather would grow them and cut them up and put them in a crock to ferment like cabbage into sauerkraut. He called it repa. I like them raw too.

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