Best 05 Seductive Vegetables for your Garden
Discover the origins and plant lore of these intriguing edibles and learn how to make them thrive in your garden
1. Carrot ‘Thumbelina’ “Daucus carota sativus”
In seventeenth-century England, the Elizabethan and Stuart fashion for decorating hats, sleeves, and dresses with flowers, fruits, feathers, and the like was amusingly extended to include the feathery tops of carrots, the lacy green foliage being thought especially fetching when “coloring up” in the fall.
That sweet, crisp, bright orange “Bugs Bunny” of a vegetable we now identify as the carrot is a distant cry from the small, tough, pale-fleshed, and bitter persona of its original wild ancestor.
Countless millennia old, the members of the Daucus carota family were not always the edible darlings they have become, the Greek naturalist and historian Pliny reporting in the first century A.D.: “There is one kind of wild Pastinaca which grows spontaneously…
Another kind is grown either from the root transplanted or else from seed, the ground being dug to a very considerable depth for the purpose.
It begins to be fit for eating at the end of the year, but it is still better at the end of two; even then, however, it preserves its strong pungent flavour, which it is found impossible to get rid of.”
History of the Carrot
The truth was, the ancient Greeks and Romans rarely ate carrots, using them instead for medicinal purposes ranging from a poultice for ulcerous sores to prescription as both a stomach tonic and eyesight enhancer.
Dioscorides, the botanist to Nero, also writing in the first century A.D., stated: “Ye root ye thickness of a finger, a span long, sweet-smelling, is good for, ye bitings and strokes of venomous beasts, and the leaves being beaten small with honey, and laid on, doth cleanse rapidly spreading destructive ulceration of soft tissues.” Carrots were also broadly popular as a love potion with the ancient Greeks, who called the unprepossessing root Philon or Philtron from the Greek word philo, meaning “loving.”
As well, Greek legend maintains that the soldiers who hid in the famous Trojan Horse consumed lavish quantities of raw carrot in order to render their bowels inactive during confinement. What we know for certain is that the important antioxidants carrots contain can protect against heart disease, cancer, and cataracts, inhibit tumour growth, and even retard premature aging.
Plant this Carrot
The carrot I recommend here is the curvaceous ‘Thumbelina,’ not only for its pretty, novel shape but also for its fairly unique ability to do well in heavy, rocky soil where other longer carrot varieties would certainly give up the ghost.
A round Paris Market-type, ‘Thumbelina’ is a sprightly, bright orange orb sprouting a dainty root at the nether end and a froth of feathery greenery at the other.
Although usually harvested at the 1⁄2-inch size, they will retain their crisp edibility up to the size of a golf ball and larger and are also notable for their sweet taste, crisp texture, and pleasing smoothness of skin, which is lovely as their shape makes them rather tiresome to peel. For all these sterling attributes, ‘Thumbelina’ was warmly received as an All-American Selections Winner in 1992.
All carrots need plenty of sun, although, as I’ve mentioned, ‘Thumbelina’ is blissfully free of the sandy, deep soil requirements of most. To start your carrot patch, either scatter seeds in a row and thin them out or plant them at the outset at 1- to 2-inch intervals in early spring, covering the seed with finely sifted compost or sand.
These pretty, ginger-coloured globes are ready to harvest about 65 days from sowing and are sublimely tossed with chopped garlic and rosemary, then roasted with some fingerling potatoes around a fowl for a nourishing fall meal.
Read More: Plant Parsnips for Winter Picking
2. Chard ‘Bright Lights’ “Beta vulgaris cicla”
“It grew with me in 1596… which plant nature doth seem to play and sport herself: for the seeds taken from the plant, which was altogether of one colour and sown, doth bring forth plants of many and variable colors…” —John Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plantes, 1636.
Let’s get the Swiss-ness issue out and over, once and for all. The hard fact is, chard isn’t any more native to Switzerland than, say, the palm tree. Clocks, yes. Intractable neutrality, surely. But chard? Not on your retentive timetable.
An erstwhile theory as it that the Swiss botanist Koch was the author of this cultivar’s scientific name and, since that auspicious moment, its name has honoured his homeland. In truth, the original home of chard most probably lies considerably farther south in the Mediterranean region, as its culinary and medicinal virtues were lauded by Aristotle himself as early as the fourth century B.C.
Chard ‘Bright Lights’
A member of the Beta vulgaris family, chard is a distant cousin of those other “greens” spinach and orach, and a kissing cousin of the beet, the latter historically cultivated for its root as the former has been for its tasty and succulent, above-ground midribs and leaves.
The English herbalist John Gerard continued to note of chard in his Herball of 1636 that “the leaves are for the most part very broad and thick, like the middle part of the cabbage leafe, which is equal in goodness with the leaves of the cabbage being boiled.” Chard, historically, has been available in a number of colour variations since its first herbal documentations, the Swiss botanist Casper Bauhin recording white, yellow, red, and “dark” varieties in his Phytopinax of 1596.
‘Bright Lights,’ a refined strain of Five Color Silverbeet, is actually a collection of a number of chards cultivated for their colouration by amateur grower John Eaton in New Zealand in the mid-1990s. A 1998 All-American Selections Gold Medal Winner, ‘Bright Lights’ is a true showstopper in the garden.
The lushly savoyed and blistered green leaves of each seedling are shot through with veins and midribs of brilliant red or orange or yellow, each combination almost neon in its vibrancy, and certainly electric as an aggregate.
The Benefits of Eating Chard
Chard is also one of the healthiest vegetables on earth. A single cup of cooked chard contains 388.9 per cent of your daily dose of vitamin K (important for maintaining bone health), 137.3 per cent of your allotment of vitamin A, 47 per cent of magnesium, and 10.2 per cent of your daily dose of calcium, yet contains a paltry thirty-five calories.
Its fortifying combination of nutrients and fibre also seems particularly effective in preventing digestive tract cancers, precancerous lesions in animals having been found to be significantly reduced following diets heavy in chard extracts.
Chards are a relatively carefree thing to grow. Start in seed cups 4 weeks before the last frost and plant out, or direct sow after danger of frost 1⁄2 inch deep, 2 to 3 inches apart, in well dug, fertile soil (optimum soil temperature for germination is 55 to 75 degrees). Thin to 8 to 10 inches apart after plants reach a height of 3 inches, and enjoy the show.
I’m very fond of making a summer relish with the colourful midribs of these beauties (reserve the leaves to sauté as spinach). Cut stems into medium dice, sauté in a bit of olive oil with diced onion, golden raisins, a minced garlic clove, and a pinch each of brown sugar, cumin, and CarDomain, toss with freshly chopped mint, cool, and enjoy.
3. Green Zebra Tomato “Solanum lycopersicon esculentum”
In 1887 in Nix v. Hedden, in order to protect the American farmer from untaxed imports, Justice Gray of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the tomato, although botanically speaking a fruit, was for official purposes a vegetable, citing: “tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas.
But in the common language of the people . . . all these are vegetables, which are grown in kitchen gardens, and . . . are usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish or meats . . . and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”
The top tomato-producing countries in the world are the United States, China, Turkey, Italy, and India, with the United States topping the list, Americans consume over 12 million tons of tomatoes annually, which is a lot of salsa. Culinary stardom, however, came very late in time for the much-maligned tomato.
Prized historically by the natives of South America and Mexico, tomatoes found their way into Spain and Portugal near the turn of the sixteenth century with the returning conquistadores, but there they languished for centuries in a kind of gastronomic purgatory. In fact, it really wasn’t until the second half of the nineteenth century that tomatoes finally achieved the kind of universal acceptance they currently enjoy.
How to Grow a Zebra Tomato
For instance, the first cookbook to mention tomatoes on the European continent was published in Naples in 1692, but it wasn’t until 1752 that English cooks took the gastronomic leap, although with remarkable trepidation, when they began employing the tomato in the flavouring of soups.
The disdain with which the tomato was first greeted in North America is a thing of legend, although, finally, by 1865, horticulturist Fearing Burr was listing 24 varieties in his The Field and Garden Vegetables of America, writing: “… to a majority of tastes, the tomato’s flavour is not at first particularly agreeable; but by those accustomed to its use, it is esteemed one of the best, as it is also reputed to be one of the most healthful, of all garden vegetables.”
Try this Tomato in your Garden
Out of the bevy of beautiful tomato varieties available to us today, I believe the best I can do in this volume is to offer up to the reader a brief, becoming range in terms of form, colour, and taste and, certainly, even an abbreviated list would not be complete without the exotic Green Zebra.
This beautiful twentieth-century hybrid was developed by Tom Wagner of Tater Mater Seeds in 1985 and, as you might assume, it is both green and striated. When ripe, Green Zebra’s lovely 3-ounce fruits are stripped from stem to base in complex shadings of yellow, amber, and deep green, and borne on handsome, indeterminate vines growing to 8 feet or more.
I’m very fond of growing Green Zebra up a teepee with a medium-yellow or red-fruited variety like Garden Peach or Enchantment for nice colour contrast.
Transplant 4- to 6-week-old Green Zebra seedlings out into the garden in a well-mulched, sunny spot 2 weeks after your frost date and you should be harvesting these sweet, zingy beauties for about 77 days from transplant. Considered a uniquely delicious salad tomato, Green Zebra’s light green flesh is exceptionally flavorful, with a nice balance of the sweet and the tart.
As well, all tomatoes are excellent sources of vitamins A and C, lycopene, magnesium, and iron, so I suggest chopping up a basketful of these with some Vidalia Onion, a jalapeño pepper, fresh cilantro, a shake of salt, and a squeeze of lime juice into a gorgeous green salsa.
4. Merlot Lettuce “Lactuca sativa”
“He has sprouted; he has burgeoned; He is lettuce planted by the water. He is the one my womb loves best.” -Sumerian Song, 3000 B.C.
Lettuce has had a hearty and long tradition of both culinary and medicinal usage and, as such, has been held in devotionally high esteem by some of our most notable ancient civilizations.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who published his famous History in 440 B.C. “… in the hope of… preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory…,” wrote of lettuce being enjoyed in ancient Persia in 550 B.C.
Hippocrates of Chios, the Greek mathematician who squared the circle and duplicated the cube for us, noted the many herbal usages of lettuce in Greece in 430 B.C., as did the great Aristotle in 356 B.C., and Pliny, the venerated natural historian who died in the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius, described no fewer than nine types of lettuce under cultivation before his untimely demise.
The Quest for Red Lettuce
Lettuce’s popular history of medicinal usage typically took one of two directions: its employment as a sleep-inducing aid, and its ability to “cool and refresh” both mind and body. Greek myth recounts that, when Adonis died, Venus threw herself onto a bed of lettuce to both lulls her grief and cool her desire.
John Evelyn makes reference to lettuce’s most prevalent uses as well as the poignant denouement of the mythic lovers in his Acetaria of 1699, reporting: “Lettuce, Lactuca: Tho’ by metaphor called ‘Mortuorum Cibi,’ [to say nothing of Adonis and his sad mistress] by reason of its soporiferous quality, ever was and still continues the principal foundation of the universal tribe of sallets; which is to cool and refresh. . . .”
Which Red Lettuce is Best?
There are hundreds of varieties of cultivated lettuce, scores of them notable for their variously commendable physical attractions, with red-tinged lettuces having been known since the earliest days of cultivation. Vilmorin-Andrieux mentions numerous red-spotted, striated, dappled, and tipped forms of both the Cabbage-Headed and Cos varieties in The Vegetable Garden of 1885, however, not a one of these could truly be called utterly red.
Today, varieties with names like ‘Red Velvet,’ ‘Rossimo’ and ‘Outredgeous’ vie for the uniformly carmine crown but a truly, really consistently and deeply red lettuce is still a rarity and, as such, the gorgeous variety “Merlot” is worthy of our undivided attention.
Merlot is a relatively new hybrid lettuce of such dramatic and homogenous deep burgundy intensity, its only crimson competition in the garden will be the Ruby Cabbages, burgundy-plumaged Beets, and some of the Amaranths and Orachs you plant. In any case, do find a place for this indisputable garden dazzler, as it is sure to sound a brilliant and virtually peerless ruby-toned note in any vegetable plot.
These dramatically scarlet, medium-sized beauties have a prettily ruffled, loose-leaf habit, growing to about 8 inches in diameter, and possess the additional benefits of a slow bolting demeanour and excellent suitability to cut-and-come-again culture.
Direct sow Merlot in early spring 1⁄8 inch deep, ultimately thinning to 8 inches apart, or start inside and plant out after danger of frost. In general, lettuce sowed in hot weather goes to seed quickly, though this vivacious cultivar is more bolt-resistant than most, but do cut or pick often once the leaves reach their desired size. Also, planting lettuces in partial shade will help retard midsummer bolting.
I’ll take these dressed simply with a good Dijon vinaigrette, a dusting of crumbled blue cheese, and a handful of golden raisins.
5. Pumpkin ‘Baby Boo’ “Cucurbita pepo”
“For pottage and puddings and custard and pies, Our pumpkins and parsnip are common supplies: We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon, If it were not for pumpkins, we should be undone!” -American Pilgrim Verse, circa 1630
The pumpkin is one of our oldest native American crops, pumpkin seeds having been found both at Machu Pichu and in the caves of the basket-weaving tribes of Colorado and Arizona dating to 2000 B.C.
Native Americans believed pumpkins had been brought to earth by the “Great Spirit” or “Maize Mother,” who walked the fields and plains in human form, causing maize to grow from her footsteps and pumpkins and squash plants to sprout in her wake. In 1529, Hernando DeSoto reported from Tampa Bay, Florida, that: “Beans and pumpkins were in great plenty. Both are larger and better than those of Spain; the pumpkins when roasted had nearly the taste of chestnuts.”
All Pumpkins, Great and Small
As we all know, pumpkins were also among the foodstuffs served at the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving and, in fact, for many years, members of the Church of England referred to Thanksgiving derisively as “St. Pompion’s Day,” pompion being the Old English nomenclature for the pumpkin.
Edward Johnson, in his Wonder Working Providence of Scion’s Saviour in New England of 1654, wrote that the pumpkin was “a fruit which the Lord fed his people with till corn and cattle increased,” and the pumpkin was so widely regarded as a food crop in the Massachusetts colonies that Boston before it was called Beantown, was known as Pumpkinshire.
By 1780, Yale students were referring to all New Englanders as “Pumpkin Heads,” another derisive term derived from the law that required men’s haircuts to conform to a cap placed over the head, the ubiquitous pumpkin shell often, apparently, being substituted for the far scarcer caps.
Size also seems to have been a lifelong issue with the pumpkin in America, as, in 1699, Massachusetts farmer Paul Dudley boasted of having produced a specimen weighing 260 pounds and, in 1721, Joshua Hempsted of Connecticut noted in his farm diary: “Wednesday, 20th: saw a pumpkin 5 foot 11 inches round.”
Plant this pretty pumpkin
The cultivar we recommend here, the delightful ‘Baby Boo,’ is a pumpkin at entirely the other end of the dimensional spectrum. A miniature modern hybrid, ‘Baby Boo’ weighs in at a tiny 2 to 3 inches around, with a true, squat, deeply ribbed, classic pumpkin shape. It is its colouration, however, that makes it genuinely remarkable, as, true to its name, this little darling is a ghostly white in hue.
There is simply nothing prettier than to allow a vine or two of tiny ‘Baby Boos’ to clamber up a trellis, the strikingly pale, tennis-ball-sized fruit brilliant against handsome green foliage and so pretty hanging pendant against the blue of the sky or the green of other leaves.
‘Baby Boo’ will grow best in moist soil with some compost or manure worked into it, and will need about 40 square feet of growing space, which is why I recommend some stout trellising. Therefore, after your frost date, plant 3 seeds together 1 inch deep, keeping them evenly moist and supplying a layer of straw or mulch, then thinning to the single best plant per 5 feet of trellising. Harvest in about 80 days.
Why not honour our hospitable Native American ancestors by serving ‘Baby Boos’ as individual “pompion pies”: cut a hole in the top of each, remove the seeds, fill the cavity with chunks of apple, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, and milk, then bake till piping hot?