Unique crops to grow in this year’s garden including vegetables from around the world, edible flowers and weeds, plants that produce food for years, and unexpected vegetables
When you grow your own food, the culinary world can be your oyster. You can grow common, easy-to-grow vegetables, of course, but you can also choose to add unique crops and unusual varieties. Delicious vegetables, fruits, and herbs that might be expensive or difficult to come by in your area. There’s another way to look at the plants in your garden too. Using flowers and weeds to add even more flavor to your homegrown harvests. Unexpected vegetables and fruit that might even be growing in your garden right now.
The more adventurous foodies will already know that there’s a whole world of food that you won’t be able to find anywhere other than in your local park, at the sides of public footpaths, and in your backyard garden. Wild plants, flowers, and unusual garden produce can give us fresh and exciting ways to taste and eat locally. Here are some ideas for discovering these flavors and adding something a little different to this year’s garden.
Flowers aren’t just pretty faces – some of them can be eaten too! Nasturtiums and their seeds are known as ‘Poor Mans Pepper’ for their peppery taste, borage flowers are refreshing and taste similar to cucumbers, and both lavender buds and rose petals are used to flavor ice cream, cordials, and other dishes.
Each edible flower will have its own flavor which ranges from spicy, sweet, to neutral. Depending on their flavor, you can use them in savory or sweet dishes — everything from salads to edible flower ice cubes. I go through many edible flowers and recipes in my book, A Woman’s Garden Grow Beautiful Plants and Make Useful Things. Common edible flowers are listed below and you can also find more edible flower inspiration here.
- Sweet: rose petals, lavender, violets, elderflower
- Savory: chives, garlic, wild garlic
- Spicy: arugula, nasturtium, pinks
- Neutral: primrose, pansies, hollyhock
- One of the best types edible flowers to use is the flowers that grow on culinary herbs — basil, mint, sage, you name it. They often taste just like the herb.
Unusual Vegetables from around the World
Growing family favorite vegetables is GREAT, but when we have the skills to grow practically anything we want it’s fun to expand our menus with unusual fruits and vegetables. Achocha, Egyptian walking onions, cucamelons, and so many more await our discovery. Each climate is different, so if you’re looking to try something unusual, check local independent seed companies, speak to growers at your local farmers market, and look through these top 10 unusual vegetables. Here are even more ideas:
- South American root crops including mashua, New Zealand yam, and yacon.
- Asian vegetables and herbs such as pak choi, choy sum, daikon radish, Asian eggplant, lemongrass, ginger, and Chinese cabbage.
- African vegetables do well in warmer climates and include okra, amaranth, cow peas, Ethiopian kale, and lablab beans.
Bolted Vegetable Florets and Flowers
When vegetables get stressed or just determine that conditions are right, they begin to set seed. It’s a natural lifecycle of plants but what we end up with is beds of bolted veg. Lettuces begin forming tall peaks of leaves that likely taste bitter, and radishes and beets become hard and woody. Not all is lost though.
Many gardeners decide to pull bolted crops out but if you leave them to grow, you can use them to save your own seeds, attract pollinators to the garden, and harvest edible flowers. The bolted florets and flowers of many vegetables are edible and can taste incredible too. They include purple sprouting broccoli, radishes, and arugula (rocket), but one of the best I’ve found this year is the bolted florets and flowers of Spanish black radishes. The florets you can eat just as you would broccoli, and the flowers like other edible flowers. Discovering them was a moment of garden joy! Unexpected vegetables in the spring hungry-gap is a real win.
With many crops, you sow seeds, nurture seedlings and plants, then harvest the entire plant at the end. It’s hard work compared to growing perennial vegetables and fruit. With perennials, you plant once and harvest for years. This group of plants includes soft fruit such as raspberries and blackcurrants, but also fruit trees, and vegetables that last for years. Nine-star perennial broccoli is one of my favorites, as is Taunton Deane kale, a type of kale that lives for many years and that you can harvest from at any time of the year. Check out this list of 70+ perennial vegetables for inspiration for your garden.
Truly Unexpected Vegetables
There’s an entire group of edible plants that deserve growing just for their novelty flavor. Miracle berries Synsepalum dulcificum are expensive to buy but are a popular party trick. They temporarily change how you taste food, making sour lemons taste sweet! The Electric daisy Acmella oleracea, causes a pleasant tingling and numb sensation in your mouth and are sometimes used in trendy cocktails. Then there’s the butterfly pea flower Clitoria ternatea, which tints food and drinks with a neutral pH blue. When you add an acid, like lemon juice, the color changes to pink-purple.
Wild Food and Edible Weeds
It’s hard to train our brains out of thinking of plants as wanted or unwanted. Cultivated or weeds. It’s well-worth breaking out of this mold though since some of the wild plants that voluntarily colonize our gardens are incredibly delicious. Hairy bittercress, which isn’t hairy at all, has leaves that taste like watercress. Sorrel has a fresh and citrusy flavor and is common in many lawns in my area. Porcini mushrooms are a delicacy and spring up in forested areas in autumn. Weeds are some of the most exciting unexpected vegetables that we can eat!
Learning which ones grow in your area and which are tasty is part of the fun. You’ll see how much fun I had learning about new ones where I live in the wild foraging video just above. Courses and in-person instruction can be the best way to learn about edible wild plants but if you’d like to learn on your own, check out these books:
- Food for Free
- The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants – Department of the US Army
- Mushroom Foraging Guide