15 Unusual fruits & vegetables for the home garden
The benefits of growing your own fruit and vegetables are many – reduced food miles, healthy exercise, truly Organic produce, self sufficiency, and a closer relationship with the land. Another is being able to choose from a vast selection of different varieties that you’ll never see in a supermarket. Heirloom tomatoes in wild shapes and sizes, foreign vegetables you’ve never heard of before, and common veg in uncommon colours.
Every year I try to grow something out of the ordinary and in the past five years some of them have graduated from trial to garden staple. Growing unusual varieties adds excitement and diversity to your plate and is just plain fun! This is why I’m sharing my list of fifteen unique varieties that I think you should consider including in your own garden this year. For more ideas, check out my Pinterest board for Unusual fruits & vegetables for the Home Grower.
1. White Strawberries
White strawberries, also called Pineberries, came onto my radar a couple of years ago. They’re not genetically engineered but rather an old variety – I bet you didn’t know that all strawberries in South America used to be white! I now have dozens of these plants on the go thanks to a friend who gave me some plants. They multiply by sending out runners (vines that grow their own root systems) so I’ll have even more baby plants to put in my allotment garden this year.
The colour of these berries is certainly intriguing but it’s functional too – I’ve not had any problems with birds eating them at all. As for taste, they’re said to be a cross between a pineapple and a strawberry but personally I think they taste like ordinary strawberries.
You might be able to find plants for sale in a local nursery, but try to get runners off any friends who are growing them first. If all else fails, here the plants are for sale on Amazon:
These South American pods that are nicknamed ‘Fat Babies’ are very easy to grow and flourish in the British climate. I originally got seeds from my pal Caro at the Urban Veg Patch, and that year I had vines growing up a bamboo wigwam.
Achocha will cover an entire wall if you let them and their green pods with their silky and soft ‘spikes’ taste like a combination of cucumber and green bell pepper. Since peppers need warmth and tend to be grown in greenhouses here in the Isle of Man, Achocha are the perfect alternative. They’re profuse, can be grown outside, and are fantastic in stirfries and any other dish you’d normally use peppers in.
I’d suggest checking out an online or in-person seed swap for this one but I have found some sources for seeds too.
3. Red Meat Radish
This is a completely new variety for me but I recently purchased seeds from Kings Seeds in the UK. Like I said before, I like to try unusual varieties every year and this is one I’ve heard good things about. Just imagine these crunchy pink roots in salads and dips! I really can’t wait to get the seeds into the ground.
Also known as ‘Mouse Melons’ these tiny cucumbers grow to just over an inch long. I tried growing them outdoors last year but the fruits didn’t have a chance to mature before it got too cold, so the lovely image you see above is from my friend Angie over at The Freckled Rose.
Cucamelons are very easy to grow and will vine up anything vertical to a height of up to eight feet. The small watermelon looking fruits are crunchy but another gardening pal has warned that the skins can become tough if the fruit is left too long on the vine. Somehow I’d doubt I’d leave any of these cute little fruits on the plant that long though!
This year I’m trying again with a plant that a friend has spare. I found out too late that hey’re perennial so once you have one established it can keep it for several years. Once you have a plant, place it in a sunny spot, ideally with protection from wind. The Real Seed Company recommends putting them in a cool-ish polytunnel.
5. Purple Podded Peas
Inside these purple pods the peas are as green as any other but their attractive Aubergine colour looks beautiful on the vine. The colour is practical as well since finding the pods is SO much easier. If you’ve grown peas or beans before (you can get purple beans too!) you’ll know just how difficult it is to spot every last pod when they’re green.
I’ve honestly not found growing them any different from growing other peas although the seed packet information claims they need to be more protected. If you’re planning on growing peas I’d highly recommend these for both their looks and ease of picking. Taste-wise, they’re the same as ordinary peas.
6. Golden Raspberry ‘Fall Gold’
I inherited Golden Raspberry plants on my new allotment garden plot and could not be more pleased. Though they’re not as sweet as the red variety, they crop in the autumn alongside them and when mixed together create such a beautiful display! They’re also less bothered by birds since the yellow fruit looks unripe to them.
Raspberries are best grown from plants purchased either bareroot or potted up. The former can only be planted out in the dormant (winter) season but if you get one growing in a pot you can put it in the ground at any time of the year. The other way to get raspberries is from a friend – the plants can be invasive with their roots constantly exploring and branching out from their original spot. These runners will need to be removed anyway so gardener pals will likely be happy to give you some of them to establish your own patch.
7. Purple Sprouting Broccoli
Though the plants need a long growing time, it’s worth it when it comes to Purple Sprouting Broccoli. Depending on the variety, it will produce masses of broccoli spears throughout the winter and early spring months when nothing else is growing in the veg patch.
Once cooked, the purple does turn green which some people might be happy with. Each spear is juicy and more full of flavour than ordinary Calabrese Broccoli and you’ll be amazed at how much money you’ll save when you grow your own. I’ve seen a small pack of them for sale at a high-end supermarket for close to £4. It’s times like those that I feel especially smug about my allotment!
8. Oca ‘New Zealand Yam’
Considered a ‘Lost Crop of the Incas’, this is another new variety for me and I’ve yet to taste them cooked. Raw, they’re like a mild crunchy radish but it’s said that when this South American root vegetable is boiled or roasted that the flavour and texture is like a lemony potato.
The greens of the plant look very similar to Wood Sorrel, a wild plant with a lemony tang flavour that can be used in salads and soups. You can use the greens of this crop in much the same way. Interestingly the tubers only start growing in size after the very first frost so you need to leave them in the ground for some weeks after that happens. Dig them up earlier, like I’ve done before, and you’ll only get a few tubers. If you wait, you can be rewarded with up to two pounds of tubers per plant. The Real Seed Company has more information on growing them.
9. Alpine Strawberries ‘Golden Alexandria’
I first became interested in growing unusual fare after my trip to the Edible Garden Show way back in 2011. It was there that I heard James Wong’s presentation on ‘Incredible Edibles’ and picked up Alpine Strawberry seeds. The plants I grew from them are still growing strong and are as beautiful as an ornamental as they are as a fruit.
Alpine strawberries don’t send out runners like other strawberry plants do but I have had small plants grow from berries that have fallen onto the soil. The berries are small and red and pack a sweetness punch that their bigger cousins can’t compete with. These little plants also grow very well in containers so would make a lovely edible plant for a patio or balcony garden.
10. Welsh Bunching Onions
I started growing Welsh Bunching onions several years ago and since then I’ve given up growing spring onions. There’s no need to grow them when you have such a low-maintenance perennial plant giving you onion greens from early spring until late Autumn.
Once you have a clump of these established they’ll regrow every year. Often described as giant chives, you can use the greens and the bulbs as you would spring onions and there’s no real taste difference in my opinion.
As the plant grows it also produces large white flowers similar to chive flowers. Bees absolutely love them and the flower heads will produce masses of seeds that you can give away or use in cooking. Saying that, they’re far easier to grow if you get an established clump from a friend. You do need to divide them up every couple of years so share the love and give mini clumps to gardening neighbours.
I’ve grown Quinoa before but the season was extremely wet and I feel that I could have done better with my harvest. I’m giving them another go this year since even in my first they were extremely prolific. Each tiny seed will sprout a plant a massive spire that can reach six feet in height that will be covered in thousands of grains that are threshed from the plant late in the summer.
Native to the Andes, Quinoa is a complete protein which makes it an excellent food for vegetarians and vegans. This grain also has a nutty taste and pleasant texture which has contributed to this super food becoming very popular with the foodie crowd. Because of this, it’s rumored that this relatively pricey food is now unaffordable to the native people who grow it as a subsistence crop. All the more reason to try growing it yourself! There are now varieties that can stand up in both hot and wet climates and I bought my very first packet of ‘Temuco’ Quinoa from the Real Seed Company which is bred for the British climate.
Though I haven’t tried growing it from seeds purchased in the shop I think the likelihood of them germinating is slim. The grains need to be soaked and scrubbed of a natural saponin (soap) before they can be consumed and I imagine processing them in that way will have an affect.
12. Globe Artichoke
The price per head of Artichoke can seem outrageous, especially if you grow it in your own garden. Each plant is productive for up to eight years and will put out dozens of flower heads every year. That’s exactly what an artichoke is by the way – an immature flower. When it blooms the artichoke looks like a giant purple thistle and bumblebees adore them.
My favourite way to have artichokes is in risotto. Boil the artichoke head to soften it up and then use the water you boiled it in to flavour your risotto – just replace the water content in your recipe with artichoke water. The base of the head is where the ‘meat’ is so cut that up and put it in the rice too.
As for growing it, once established in fertile soil it will only need a mulch of compost once a year. That’s it! When I first started growing veg I thought it would be more fussy and need more heat but it thrives in our very mild climate on the Isle of Man.
13. Rainbow Carrots
Did you know that the very first carrots were white and sometimes purple? It’s mainly through breeding that the thick orange carrots we know today are on the shelves. Still, those earlier strains of coloured carrots do exist and I’m very excited to be growing some this year!
Rainbow carrots come in purple, white, orange, yellow, and red, and the packet of seeds I purchased is a mix of all of them. I understand that the flavour is pretty much the same but the visual interest and perhaps higher concentrations of some vitamins make growing these an exciting prospect.
If you’re interested in the history of the carrot head over to this page for a detailed report on their origins.
14. Cape Gooseberry
You may have seen these berries in a fancy fruit display but have never thought of growing them before. I picked up seeds for these frost-tender perennials at the Edible Garden Show and from them grew several plants. I even propagated a few more of them through cuttings and gave plants away to gardening pals.
Cape Gooseberries, also known as Physalis and a few other names, look like mini yellow tomatoes and have a mildly sweet yet tart flavour that make it an interesting raw addition to fruit bowls. They’re also fun to unwrap out of their little paper lanterns!
Last on my list is the alien-like vegetable Kohlrabi. I remember having this the very first time on a trip to Germany – it had been roasted and served cut into chunks along with Sauerbraten and other dishes I can’t quite remember now. What I do remember was being pleasantly surprised at the sweet, cabbage flavour of this juicy vegetable. You can roast it like described or even eat it raw, sliced up like an apple.
Though it is a Brassica, growing Kohlrabi is easier than growing cabbage. It does attract the attention of birds and cabbage white butterflies but not to the extent as other cabbage family crops. When the swollen stem of the plant is about the size of a tennis ball it’s time to harvest them and serve them up in savoury dishes. Until then, they look like interesting architectural plants in the garden.