40 Unusual Vegetables To Grow In A UK Garden

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What Is An Unusual or Exotic Vegetable & How Do I Get Unusual Vegetables To Grow In A UK Garden (Or Anywhere Else)? And Where Can I Buy Unusual Vegetable Seeds? These Questions Are Answered Here.

Pineapple Guava, Another Unusual Fruit To Grow In UK Gardens
Pineapple Guava (Acca sellowiana) growing in Sidmouth November 2020

When I started my career as a market gardener growing salads and vegetables, many crops such as peppers, chillis, coriander weren’t frequently grown by gardeners in the UK. Nor were a host of other plants that today we find in supermarkets and consider perfectly normal and easy to grow in or gardens. I was fortunate in being approached by an Indian guy who asked me to grow crops specifically for him and the shops he served in places such as Bedford, Leicester, Bradford and beyond. Soon I was growing a half-acre of coriander per sowing, had a tunnel of snake gourds, was considering the merits of fenugreek varieties and a growing host of other non-traditional, exotic, “queer gear” (not politically correct today but this was the term used for years as seen in this Daily Mail vegetable article), bhaji crops.

Some argue the change goes back to the advent of low-cost air travel and cheap overseas holidays. Suddenly we were eating food we’d never experienced before and our journey into learning about unusual vegetables to grow in the UK commenced.

Or at least that is part of the story. The real story is somewhat different. Many of the plants we are now starting to grow as unusual crops have actually been with us for years and are being re-discovered.

 

What Have The Romans Ever Done For Gardeners?

My local hedgerows contain a plant called Alexanders or horse parley (Smyrnium olusatrum). It’s a plant that thrives near the sea on cliff tops and seaside hedgerows but is less common once we travel more than a mile or so from the sea. Except, that is, around monasteries and nunneries, where monks and nuns grew it in their gardens.

Alexanders isn’t a native plant. It was introduced to the UK by the Romans as an edible plant. Every part of the plant is edible and for centuries country people, in my area of the south-west of England, have foraged for it. All of it is edible .. flowers, stems, stalk, seeds and roots. In recent years Alexanders has become popular with foragers and gardeners. Seed and young plants are now available from nurseries and specialist seed houses.

Crops Previously Only Seen In Foreign Markets Can Now Be Grown In the UK

Crops Previously Only Seen In Foreign Markets Can Now Be Grown In the UK

Other unusual plants have a history that goes back to the colonial days of the British Empire. As the map turned pink the palate of the British administrators and soldiers was subjected to a wide range of vegetables, fruits and flavours. Some were to become adopted favourites and explains reports that the favourite British dish is now curry!

The next source of unusual veg is immigration. Not only did ethnic people in the UK want to buy fruit and veg they knew in corner shops. They wanted to grow them here on their gardens and allotments as this report from Garden Organic demonstrates.

Finally, there is a huge swathe of food crops we can grow today that were considered too difficult to grow here. In my own small way, I was one of the people that changed all that. Let me explain.

 

Discovering Unusual Vegetables To Grow Commercially

For years, in the UK we ate “butterhead” and Cos lettuce. Butterhead are those soft fluffy thin-leaved lettuce that have a short shelf life. They were the very first lettuce I ever grew commercially .. all 90,000 in one go. Grown in autumn under glass we had to cut all 90,000 in a few weeks in early winter. If you want to know what it feels like to cut so many lettuce stand up straight then try bending down and touching your toes 90,000 times. It’s back-breaking work and profits weren’t high!

Cos lettuce are a thicker leafed lettuce. More upright in stature they last longer and to my mine has much more flavour than butterhead lettuce. I preferred Cos lettuce and still grow the same variety now, over 40 years later. It’s called Lobjoits Green Cos.

The problem was that people’s tastes were changing. We’d had Lakeland lettuce varieties grown outdoors in the summer for years. They were a bit like crisp lettuce and lasted a bit longer in the fridge than other varieties. But they were prone to mildew and couldn’t be grown under glass in spring, autumn or winter. In those seasons we imported crisp and Lakeland type lettuce.

Then I saw a trial of indoor crisp lettuce being grown under glass one autumn. They were a new variety and were superb. Heavy, real crisp lettuce like we have today. They had superb keeping quality and would last weeks in the fridge. And in those days the flavour was good. He also said he thought they would be OK as a spring crop but no one had tried yet. Lights flashed in my head and I said I’d like to try to grow them in spring if he could supply the seed. He could and I decided on an all or nothing strategy.

April 1st the following year could have seen my looking like a fool as I started to cut the lettuce. It was a variety called Marmer (no longer available, unfortunately) and they were heavy, top quality lettuce that sold extremely well in the London markets.

That decided me. 90% of my nursery was planted to crisp lettuce during the summer and were harvested in autumn.

Financially we had our best year ever.

The following spring saw a lot more Marmer grown in the UK. The London markets and supermarkets had bee encouraging their suppliers to grow crisp (iceberg) lettuce and many had.

By year three the good margins we had made were fast disappearing and I started my search for other exotic crops to grow.

I have to admit my responsibility in the introduction of iceberg lettuce to the UK. In my defence I can only say “sorry” but they were tasty in those days … (the tasteless ones today are nothing to do with me …. honest)

 

40+ Unusual Vegetables To Grow

Over the next months, I’ll add 40 or more Unusual Vegetables To Grow in your garden.

Watch this space for information on how to grow Dudi, Callaloo, Tree Spinach, Lai, Papaya, Hamburg Parsley, Quinoa, Fat Hen, Loofah, Cow Peas, Chickpeas, Kiwis, Guava, Lentils, Amaranth, Chinese Stem Lettuce, Fenugreek, Coriander, African Horned Cucumber, Yacon, Kabo and many, many, more wonderful, tasty exotics and other Unusual Vegetables To Grow

 

Luffas (Loofahs)

Luffas are edible tender vines from the cucumber family that produce both an edible fruit and, when older and more fibrous can be used to make loofahs, the sponge-like product sold for bathroom use. For simplicity, I am using the term luffa to denote the plant and loofah the “sponge”.

In the UK we can buy seed from two species of Luffa. L. cylindrica, which, as its name suggests is cylindrical in shape and L. acutangula which has better flavour and is shaped like a ridged cucumber.  Because each species is better for either eating or loofah production it’s preferable to choose the right seed for the purpose we have in mind.  Having said that both will serve both purposes, though in both cases the secondary purpose is inferior to its primary purpose. Where the flavour of the fruit is a little bitter it can be improved a bit by salting the cut fruit to remove the bitter flavour before eating. 

Irrespective of the species chosen both have deeply lobed leaves and tend to sprawl rather than climb. Hence it is often advised that they should be trained over trellis rather than up a bamboo. My personal preference is to use a string and twist them up it in exactly the same way as I grow cucumbers. Indeed, in many ways, I would suggest you grow them almost exactly as you would a cucumber. 

Overseas there are many cultivars of both species but in the UK the seed houses tend to offer only the species and not named varieties. That might change in the near future if luffas become more popular. This may well come about with hybrid varieties as they tend to readily hybridise, even over a distance.

Luffas carry both male and female flowers on the same plant. where only males are apparent it is usually because of adverse growing conditions. 

 

Luffa: germination. growing on and cultivation

Luffas are warmth-loving plants from tropical and sub-tropical climes. Hence when we grow them we need to take this into consideration. They need to be germinated at around 75-85 degrees F (26-30 degrees C) and a short presoaking in warm water often enhances germination rates which can be sporadic. My recommendation is to plant 2-3 seeds per small pot and remove the weakest when they have fully emerged.  Pot on into larger pots as you would with cucumbers until the plant can be planted in a warm sheltered position outside or, preferably under glass. My preference is to use a bottomless pot in the final instance and put that in the final growing position as this prevents growth setbacks. 

Once in their final growing positions, I recommend feeding the same as cucumbers. Many growers say this should be once a week with sufficient water between feeds. My view is that both luffas and cues do better from daily feeds of tomato feed. 

 

Luffa: fruiting and picking

In good conditions, luffas require no help to pollinate. Insects will do this for you.  Hand pollinate only if really necessary. If this is required it usually indicates other issues such as over or underwatering, low temperatures etc. 

Like all plants, there is a limit on how many fruit the plant can cope with. In the case of luffas, it is around 6-7 fruit at any one time. Hence if you pick them for eating they will keep fruiting. Picking fro eating should be done when the fruit is 12 inches long or less. 

 

Luffas: Loofah production

As the fruit grow they become more fibrous and darker in colour. If you want a dark coloured loofah leave it on the plant to age. Once picked you need to remove the skin, pulp and seeds. The easiest way is to damage the now tough skin before peeling it away. Throwing it at a wall of hard floor is the traditional way of breaking the skin. Then use your fingers to remove as much pulp and seeds as possible. 

Soaking the loofah in warm water will ensure ay residual flesh rots and is easy to remove in running water. Once done allow the loofah to dry in the sun. 

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