Growing Exotic Vegetables
Pak Choi 'Shanghai,' courtesy Kitazawa Seed Company
Pak Choi 'Shanghai,' courtesy Kitazawa Seed Company. Popular in South China, this green-stemmed variety of bok choy is tender and tasty. The plants are prolific and heat tolerant. Saute it with garlic and soy sauce, or snip the leaves to add to salads. This "baby" choy can take light frosts.
Image courtesy Kitazawa Seed Company
Gardening is a hobby that never gets old, because you can always find something new and exciting to grow. If you’ve never tried exotic vegetables, you’ll find they add different and delicious flavors to your salads, sauces and other dishes.
So forget those tired old tomatoes. Plant a Thai Dragon pepper or pickle (yes, pickle) a jar of aromatic ‘Miike Giant’ mustard leaves. Bake an Asian eggplant; they have a milder, more delicate taste than Western varieties and don’t require peeling. Toss a handful of ‘Taichung 13’ (a delicious sugar pea variety) into your next stir-fry, as cooks do in China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia and other countries. There are many nutritious, delicious exotic veggies to try.
Here’s a sampler to get you started:
‘Shonan Red’ – This red bulb onion was developed in Tokyo. It has a crisp, sweet, mild flavor and adds crunch and color to salads and sandwiches. It’s also good when chopped and mixed with thinly sliced cucumbers, marinated in vinegar and seasoned with a little salt, sugar and some dried chili flakes. Plant the seeds in late summer or early fall; the onions mature in 160 or more days.
‘Red Garnet’ – This amaranth is also known as Chinese spinach or yin choi and is prized by chefs for its attractive burgundy stems and greenish-red leaves. Not recommended for cold climates, but the plants grow well in hot temperatures. Sow the seeds in late spring to early summer. You can begin harvesting microgreens (used like sprouts or a garnish) or baby leaves in about 20 days. Allow 35 to 60 days for the plants to fully mature.
Taiwanese Cabbage, Hybrid ‘Li-Sun Sweet’ - ‘Li-Sun Sweet’ is a tender, sweet cabbage that performs best in cool climates. The heads are large and flattened. Serve it to eat fresh, or cook it. Asian cooks often ferment it for kimchi (a spicy pickled cabbage that is known as the national dish of Korea).
Edible Burdock, or Gobo, ‘Takinogawa’ - The crispy, mildly pungent roots of this plant are considered delicacies. Sow the seeds in spring to harvest from late summer to fall. The roots of this hardy biennial can grow up to 4 feet long and one inch across. Eat them when they are young like celery, or cook them when they are mature like carrots. In Japan and China, the steamed stalks are eaten like asparagus and the plants are believed to have curative properties. Grow edible burdock in deeply tilled, sandy soil.
‘Collective Farm Woman’ – An old Ukrainian muskmelon variety that is popular in the Black Sea area. The yellow gold melons have a sugary-sweet, white flesh and are said to taste like a blend of peaches and pineapples. The melons ripen early, in 60 days, so this variety is recommended for gardeners whose growing season is short and cool.
‘Crispy Colors Duo’ Kohlrabi – A staple of Asian and Eastern European gardens, kohlrabi is hard to find across most produce markets. This vegetable’s name is a combination of German words for cabbage and turnip, according to Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden. The flesh is tender, mild and sweet. It can be stir fried, baked with butter and lemon, or served in a side dish prepared with fresh herbs, sour cream or yogurt. ‘Crispy Colors Duo’ bulbs are purple or green-skinned, with white flesh. Sow the seeds in early spring and expect a harvest in about 60 days.
As with any vegetable, for best results, choose varieties that are recommended for your garden zone.
Read about the plants you want to grow. You’ll find information on the seed packets, on seed sellers’ websites, and in gardening catalogs. This will help you know how to grow and harvest varieties that are different from those you’re already familiar with.
Many exotics thrive in full sun and hot climates. If you don’t have the perfect garden spot, try giving them a microclimate in a raised bed. Place the bed near your house or another structure: the walls will help reflect light and heat. You can also grow exotics in containers and move them around as needed.
Sources for exotic vegetable seeds:
Lockhart Seeds; no website, but call 209-466-4401 for a catalog