If a garden was a high school, Zucchini and Tomato would probably be the Star Quarterback and Head Cheerleader. Everybody knows and grows these garden greats, and they can be found in pretty much any food plot that can hold them. Of course, they’re easy to grow, delicious, and versatile, so their popularity is merited. But as any former high-school misfit knows, at the unheralded margins of the class, there are dozens of fascinating, quirky individuals that are well worth knowing with if you take the time to get acquainted. In the garden, the agricultural versions of the president of the AV club, tenor in the glee club, and chess-team members are useful, productive, and delicious, and in all cases, their current status as unpopular garden plants is totally undeserved.
So, that said, I’d like to introduce you to some fantastic options that you may have never heard of, or never tried growing. Give some of these unpopular garden plants a chance on your homestead next growing season, and just see if you don’t find a new favorite.
Amaranth is an unpopular garden plant that deserves more attention for a multitude of reasons. It’s a gorgeous plant, adding a shockingly bright tuft of high-lofted color to any landscape. It’s a dual-purpose food plant, offering both edible leaves and highly nutritious grain. And it’s an incredibly drought-tolerant plant, growing in areas that may not support more sensitive crops. When you first see amaranth seeds, it may be hard to believe that something so small could offer so much. But when you realize that those poppy-seed-sized bits are able to produce a pound of grain each, their viability as a deliciously productive food source may start to become much more apparent.
A hot-weather plant, amaranth will flourish in the summer months, and since it matures relatively rapidly, even gardeners with short growing seasons can still get the plant to seed-bearing maturity. If you believe you don’t have a green thumb, try growing this easy plant before you totally write yourself off.
Once the staple grain of the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, amaranth is just as relevant in the 21st century, if given a chance at the dinner table. It can be ground into porridge, cooked whole like miniature quinoa, ground into a flour substitute, and even popped like popcorn. I’m fond of taking popped amaranth and mixing it with melted dark chocolate to make wonderfully-textured chocolate treats.
Chinese Long Beans
What these beans lack in widespread acclaim they make up for in diversity of name. Called yard-long beans, long beans, asparagus beans, Chinese long beans, noodle beans, snake beans, dow guak, and Vigna unquiculata var. Sesquipedalis, these are some of my favorite beans to grow in the heat of my Ozark summers. Like the cowpeas that they are related to, these legumes flourish in heat and are ideal for growing in zones 5 and hotter. Eager to climb, give these vines something to wind around as they grow. And don’t be in a rush to plant them early—they’ll only start producing their delicately beautiful purple flowers and pods after the summer solstice.
And true to its many names, the pods of this bean are shockingly long. Though very few varieties are able to actually produce the 3-foot long pod that they’re named for, most produce a still very impressive foot-and-a-half long pod that certainly gives you plenty of material to work with in the kitchen. Simply sliced and stir-fried with garlic and soy sauce, they’ll be an easy family pleaser.
You may have encountered a knobby, ginger-root-resembling thing in a health food store labeled “Jerusalem Artichokes,” but I’d wager that many readers of this article haven’t eaten one, nor grown one. And that’s a shame because those inaccurately-named tubers are from a native American sunflower (not an artichoke, and not from Israel) that is an incredible addition to the edible landscape and source of perennial nutrition. Developed for their root, rather than an impressive bloom, these underappreciated tubers are the definition of easy food production. Simply plant them in the ground in the fall, and stand back! They’ll grow to their impressive 8-10 foot height in pretty much any soil, unaided, and will absolutely fill the ground with their edible roots. In fact, they’re so successful, you need to be careful where you plant them—they’ll take over, and there’s little chance of getting them out (unless you employ an eager, rooting pig to find every last scrap).
Taste-wise, sunchokes slightly resemble sunflower seeds, but their texture is more like a cross between a potato and a water chestnut. They’re lovely roasted, excellent blended in a soup, and can even be pickled like a cucumber or fermented to make a fascinating kimchi-like condiment. And did I mention that they’re abundant producers? One pound of sunchokes planted in the earliest spring may likely yield at least seven times that amount after the first frost, if not more.
I’ve heard parsnips described as an “old-fashioned” vegetable, with a disdainful curl of the lip. As if plants could occupy the same space as platform shoes or bell-bottomed jeans! Ascribing trending statuses to stable food sources is a worrying symptom of a society in decline, but I’ll not preach on that soapbox at the moment. I’ll just try to give parsnip its due.
Now, I’ll wager that parsnip’s status as an unpopular garden plant is not due to their flavor or utility—these carrot-family roots are deliciously sweet and nutty, they can grow more than a foot long and far thicker than any carrot, and they are excellent to store for winter use. I think it’s because parsnips exist in a slightly different dimension of time than most other garden vegetables—in a fast-paced world that is based on instant gratification, parsnips are anathema. They take FOREVER to germinate, and they take FOREVER to grow. Seeds that you plant into the ground in late March probably won’t sprout for a few weeks, and then they will slowly grow through the spring, summer, and fall—only really ready to be harvested after the first few light frosts. All that said, however, I would never have a garden without them. Roasted, they are candy-like. Stewed, they add a unique flavor to any meal. And grated and baked in a spiced cake, they can transport you back to the Middle Ages, when parsnips were used as a sweetening before the days of the sugar trade.
Those familiar with French cuisine may have heard of a famous soup called vichyssoise, a soup of pureed leeks, potatoes, and cream. But aside from the Francophiles among us, it seems that leeks gather little attention. However, these delicious and symmetrically pleasing onion-family plants are well worth growing.
Like parsnips, leeks require patience when it comes to waiting for them to develop. These are also not quite a set-it-and-forget-it sort of plant. Alliums don’t tolerate competition very well, and leeks can easily be overpowered by grass and weeds. Finally, in order to get the biggest, most tender white stalks, leeks are often carefully buried and mulched to protect and blanch them. But all that TLC aside, leeks are seldom troubled by any pest and can tolerate cold weather with panache.
As a member of the allium family, leeks have a similar flavor to their onion and garlic cousins, but it’s a bit more sweet and rich. It’s hard to describe the difference, but it’s easy to appreciate it. Our family delights in one of our favorite dishes—leeks sliced thin (including the majority of the green parts that recipes are so fond of discarding!) and sauteed with cumin and thin slices of lamb, served with a rice pilaf pr a big pile of homemade pita bread. Can you hear my stomach rumbling through your screen?
Seeing the knobby, warty, dirt-colored lump of a celeriac root doesn’t inspire admiration, nor does its medical-malady-sounding name. Perhaps that’s why so few have heard of it, and why so many fewer even grow it. I would love to plant this in my garden, but I have a hard time even tracking down the seeds! So it is with no experience that I recommend it. All the same, its virtues compel me to keep trying to find it, and to spread the word about its existence to other growers. This plant is the same species as celery, but rather than being bred for its succulent stems, it was bred for a root mass that is excellent for root cellaring. In addition to having the flavor of celery with the long-keeping qualities of a turnip, it is apparently much more forgiving to grow than celery.
If you’re interested in continuing to research unique and unusual plants that you can grow, try finding scorzonera, turnip-rooted chervil, rampion, chayote, hardy kiwi, or tomatillo. Just because the standard set of garden plants are popular doesn’t mean that that’s all there is to fill your food plot with—not by a long shot! What I’ve listed merely hints at the unexplored riches of the unpopular garden plant world. Now, those in this article are some of my favorites… what are yours?
About the Author: Wren was once a teacher living in the city. But she and her husband decided to make their escape from the confines of modernity and its dependence and move their family to 12 acres of land in the Ozarks. They are currently in the middle of establishing an off-grid homestead, and now happily spend their days as modern peasants, seeking out, learning, and trying to preserve the old skills that their urban backgrounds never gave them.