By Chuck Ross
This summer, why not study abroad – in your garden? A growing interest in eating healthily, and cooking globally, has gardeners pushing the boundaries of the old-fashioned vegetable garden.
Screaming yellow tomatoes: Unlike its predecessors, Golden Mama produces brilliant yellow paste and sauces. Squash that look like smiling human faces. Eighty-pound pumpkins. Square tomatoes. They’ve been around forever in seed-company ads that run in the back of Sunday newspaper supplements and in Gee Whiz photos on the front pages of supermarket tabloids. Oddly formed and colored vegetables have long fascinated us as the freak shows of the garden.
Now, though, it seems, home gardeners are turning to odd, offbeat, and exotic vegetables by the bushel. Instead of gawking at the impossibility of a 4-pound tomato or a cauliflower the color of a block of processed cheese food, we’re growing them ourselves. In fact, the wealth of new varieties is helping to boost vegetable seed sales and turning even city dwellers into modern-day farmers.
Several factors seem to be contributing to an increase in the number of people opting to grow at least some of their own produce, even as interest in flower gardening has wilted a bit in the last year or two. Recent bacteria scares involving packaged vegetables have raised fears among even strictly organic shoppers, and sophisticated home cooks, limited by supermarkets that can’t always keep pace with the latest culinary trends, are growing their own exotic vegetables to meet the needs of demanding recipes. There’s newfound status to be found in growing your own, and not just the same Big Boy or “burpless” as the guy down the block.
“The pendulum seems to be swinging back,” says Nona Koivula, executive director of the National Garden Bureau, an association of companies that market flower and plant seeds. “These companies are seeing an increasing popularity in seed vegetables. The fact is, they’re easy to grow. Many vegetables tie into the container trend.”
Say ‘cauliflower’: A high amount of beta carotene gives the cheddar hybrid cauliflower its orange hue. Seed companies are seeing the cheesy head sell better than standard white variety. Image courtesy Park Seeds.
Those whose growing areas are restricted to pots and window boxes will be glad to learn that new-variety developers aren’t just focusing on Paul Bunyan-sized vegetables, such as the new 2- to 4-pound Porterhouse beefsteak tomato. Some of the new miniature varieties are perfect for urban decks and rooftops. The Black Pearl ornamental pepper plant, a 2006 winner in the All-America Selections competition sponsored by the National Garden Bureau, tops out at 18 to 20 inches tall. Its eye-catching black foliage and clusters of black, extra-hot peppers would make a great focal point on even the smallest deck or patio.
Smaller produce also is a goal with some of the advanced breeding. As our households get smaller, bumper harvests can overwhelm even the heartiest appetite. “Our customers have always appreciated the huge veggie,” notes Stephanie Turner, seed director for Greenwood, S.C.-based Park Seeds. “Now, though, the company is seeing increased interest in plants like the Twinkle eggplant, with fruit that reaches perfection at 2-1/2 inches long, and Mirai corn, with cobs a plate-friendly 5 inches long.”
Technicolor veggies also are attracting gardening fans. In some cases, these orange, purple, and even chartreuse specialties are pushing standard varieties from the top of the sales charts. “We’re seeing that, in several different categories of vegetables, some of them our actually outselling traditional varieties,” says Turner.
For example, Turner notes that seeds for the cheddar hybrid cauliflower, which looks like a surprisingly lumpy head of cheddar cheese, now sell better than those for the standard white variety. (You also can grow a chartreuse-colored variety called Romanesco, which features fractal-shaped florets that look like something out of a child’s crystal-growing science project.)
Purple reign: ‘Purple haze’ carrots are a sure bet to make any salad zing; just be sure to serve them raw – the color fades with cooking. Image courtesy Park Seeds
The odd coloration in many of today’s unusual offerings derives from different combinations of vitamins and minerals than those the vegetable typically features. So, cheddar cauliflower gets its orange coloring from high doses of beta carotene, the stuff that makes carrots look like carrots. In fact, only carrots have more beta carotene than this new cauliflower variety.
Unless, of course, those carrots are purple. Purple haze carrots, another AAS winner, sport a brilliant purple hue that draws on the same ingredients that make blueberries blue, Turner says. The color only penetrates a bit beneath the skin, leaving the carrot core a bright orange. It’s not a color combination you might choose for your next evening out, but it does make for a striking salad. The color dulls with cooking, so serve it raw for best effect.
Though their appearance may be unusual, these new varieties should pose no added challenge to even inexperienced gardeners, experts say. In fact, some could have even greater harvest rates than tried-and-true versions because of the added research attention they’ve received.
“Usually newer varieties are easier to grow because there’s constant improvement in breeding,” Turner says. “And hybrids have increased vigor. Home gardeners can pretty much guarantee success with that.”
The one downside to hybrid planting, however, is that seeds from this year’s crop can’t be used to duplicate success next year. Instead, with these varieties, gardeners will have to buy new seed packets when planning future crops.
Safe to eat: Not a science project, this prickly, yellowy-green object is, in fact, a vegetable: a Romanesco variety cauliflower. Image courtesy Park Seeds
For new, non-hybridized varieties, some seed sellers are looking overseas, discovering long-successful crops that are still exotic to U.S. growers. Frank Mangan, a University of Massachusetts assistant professor, is leading efforts to introduce such vegetables as taioba squash and a cucumber called maxixi, familiar to the state’s many Brazilian immigrants.
“They’re going to want to start growing things that are popular in their cuisines,” he says of the importance of new immigrants to expanding U.S. produce options. “With some of these crops, I think there’s definite possibility for crossover.”
And crossover is definitely behind the success of Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The Winslow, Maine-based seed producer and merchant has seen success in marketing seeds for Asian vegetables, including gr,eens such as Chinese bok choy and slender Suyo Long cucumbers, Red Giant Japanese mustard and Thai Kermit eggplant As U.S. taste buds open to more international cuisine, home cooks are seeking fresh sources for sometimes hard-to-find ingredients.
“I think there’s more interest, especially in the Asian greens,” says T.J. Vinci, vegetable products manager at Johnny’s Seeds. “Our greens section is one of our best-sellers.”