Tired of piles of zucchini overwhelming your kitchen? Not that interested in growing yet one more tomato? Bored with squash? I feel you. I too have gotten to the point where I just can’t stomach the idea of planting yet another row of cilantro to be ready when the currant ones bolt. I don’t have one of those gorgeous, picture perfect potagers, because, as we all know I’m just not that into weeding. So if I’m going to have to slave over something and tend to it’s every little whim and need, I want it to be something extraordinary, or at least something worth talking about.
This is how I discovered cucamelons or Mexican Sour Gherkin Cucumbers (Melothria scabra). A friend was distributing the bounty from his garden in exchange for some of my chickens’ eggs and he handed me a baggie filled with what looked like dollhouse watermelons. Tiny little striped ovals, which he just popped into my mouth. Wow, crazy, pure cucumber taste with a little zip of lime, these babies were delicious and one of the niftiest things I’d ever seen to throw in a salad or on a crudités platter. It has to be the “cutest” edible I’ve ever come across and one of the easiest to grow.
Cucamelons grow just like cucumber, in that they want sun and fertile soil and decent water, but unlike cucumbers, they are super reliable and take up a lot less room. Still a vine, they need some support to clamber upon, but they’re easy to start from seed and fairly prolific once they get going.
And to go along with the theme, we need to grow one of the melons called Metki serpent melons (Cucumis melo var. flexuosus) – a muskmelon (Cucumis melo) that also tastes like a cucumber (Cucumis sativus). Often called Armenian cucumber and usually found among the cucumbers in seed listings, these melons are almost identical in shape and flavor to the cucumber. They get their name from the fact that they can grow to be almost three feet long, and if not grown on a trellis or support structure of some kind, will twist up into squiggles that sort of resemble snakes. They are ridged when growing and have a fuzzy skin, but when mature smooth out into one of three colors, a pale green to white color, a dark green or striped, which is the best looking.
I am a huge fan of gooseberries and currants (Ribes) so those shrubs are pushing their way into spaces where radishes and spinach used to grow. When I was a child in England, my favorite desert of all time was gooseberry crumble and I still salivate thinking about it. Ribes were outlawed in America in the early 1900s to prevent white pine blister rust (a fungus they are susceptible to) from affecting the lumber industry, the federal ban was lifted in 1966 but it wasn’t until 2003 that New York State started to allow home gardeners to legally grow these fruits. There are two types of gooseberry plants, the American (Ribes hirtellum) which make smaller fruits but are way more productive and less susceptible to mildew (the one bummer about growing Ribes) and the European (Ribes uva-crispa) which are larger and much more flavorful. Unlike most fruits, gooseberries can handle partial shade, but make sure there’s plenty of air circulation to help you battle mildew. They must have rich soil since they resent drying out, but they adore our soil and even if you get small plants give them about 3 to 5 feet of room to expand as they grow. I promise you the effort is worth it.
Another unusual fruit worth growing is our native elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) a fast growing shrub that the deer don’t seem to like. This might be because the berries when red are toxic, so make sure you’re not harvesting them until they are at their most purple blackness. This is a big plant (it can grow to be 12 feet wide and tall) that has a tendency to sucker, so you need to give it room. I would advise planting it in a hedgerow, not the vegetable garden and trying to find a number of different cultivars as the fruits are better with cross pollination (much like blueberries.) This is another plant that can handle a little shade and although they tolerate neglect, you’ll get a lot more fruit if you keep them well-watered and top-dressed with compost each year. You harvest the berries by cutting off the entire cluster and must cook the fruits to make juice, jelly or wine. I’ve not tried the wine, but I do like them mixed with apples as a pie filling. I do have to battle my birds to be able to really enjoy large harvest, but when I don’t, I never have to worry about them going to waste.
Another native edible that’s worth trying is the pawpaw (Asimina) of which there are actually 9 native species but only one (Asimina triloba) is hardy in our area. These are trees so if your pawpaw is in full sun it’s going to get about 20 feet or so tall and would be happiest allowed to sucker into a big pawpaw patch. Paw paws are not self fertile, so you need to have two to get fruit set, and the best way to ensure a full crop is help with the pollination with an artist’s paint brush. Seedlings can’t handle full sun, but most of the trees you’ll find will be past that stage so plant them where they’ll get plenty of it. However, do try to avoid planting them in a windy spot, as the leaves can’t handle the constant stress. This might sound like a lot of work, but the fruits are really quite delicious, with the texture of a banana and a flavor that is almost as if you mashed up that banana with a mango and a pear.
I don’t grow pawpaws, but I do have a fruiting quince (Cydonia oblonga) that is one of my favorite plants. Quince resemble hard fuzzy pears that have a fragrance that smells like the offspring of a pineapple and a lemon that made love in a vat of honey. The fruit is either yellow or pink and rock hard so these are not for fresh eating, but make an incredible jelly and are ready to be harvested sometime in October. It’s not a pretty plant, so mine is tucked around the side of my house, but I adore the plant and will always have one somewhere on any property I own, albeit in as much sun as I can spare and without fertilizer as too much nitrogen makes this plant stress.
Of course, if we’re talking about incredible jelly the other plant that we should all grow is our native beach plum (Prunus maritima). When I was a kid, there were a billion beach plums growing in the dunes (where houses now unfortunately sprout) and almost everyone and their neighbor had a stockpile of beach plum jelly put up for the winter, not to mention that they all also had their own favorite, well guarded secret bushes from which they’d picked their preferred berries. Some of the most delicious fruits are actually growing on two shrubs in the center of The Bayberry Nursery’s perennial sales area and in late summer it’s worth a visit just to steal a few of these tart little treats. Totally tolerant of the salty air and sandy soils of the beach, this plant can also be grown in the backyard and is a perfect shrubby bush to grow if your garden is not all that fertile and you have plenty of light.
But enough with the fruit. A list of other fun things to grow would definitely include lovage (Levisticum officinale) a plant that tastes almost identical to celery but is significantly easier to grow. Normally seeded in late summer or fall, you’ll probably want to start with a young plants instead and in good soil the plant is magnificent with leaves that look like giant parsley and are delicious when used in any recipe that calls for celery and with gorgeous white umbel flowers that set seeds that mature in August. Seeds that are amazing scattered into salads and fruit (they are surprisingly sweet) and that will self sow if left alone, but are better planted farther apart. You might not need a million lovage plants around the garden, but once you’ve cut a stalk to use as a Bloody Mary “straw” I promise you will never go back to celery again.
This year, I’m thinking about growing the rat tailed radish (Raphanus sativus caudatus), specifically because instead of eating the root, you consume the seedpods. Sort of ugly, the pods have that same hot radish flavor, but are an entirely different texture and since I’m a huge consumer of vegetative matter, I’m interested to see what these things are like. Plus they’re meant to be super cool in a stir-fry, fantastic pickled in vinegar with pink peppercorns, allspice and mace and another cool addition to the crudités platter. The seed pods can get to be 8 inches long and are grown in the same way you would grow any other radish, except that you don’t have to tear your hair out it the bolt to seed quicker than expected.
The other day I actually saw seeds of garden purslane (Portulaca oleracea), which has become this hot thing in restaurants all of a sudden, but frankly I draw the line at seeding things in my garden I’ve weeded up previously. I used the weed when making salads, and it is really quite delicious, with a sharp, citrusy tang and a bit of a bite, the succulent leaves add an interesting and distinct texture to herby salads, plus it’s super high in Vitamin C but I enough of these plants have already found their own way into my garden. I’m not bringing in more.
There are so many other interesting and unusual edibles I could go on and on, but I have no more room, in either my garden or this column. But just a few to ask around about would be ground cherries, stevia, pomegranates, kiwis, amaranth, tastoi and perilla. Be careful with the perilla though, as mine self-seeded all over the place. Not that self-seeding is bad, I now let all my self-seeded cilantro go to seed since the seeds of cilantro are actually coriander (two, two, two herbs in one!) and fresh coriander seeds, unlike the dried and dusty ones you get at the store in the tiny glass bottles, are significantly more delicious and work equally well when thrown in with a cooking salmon or a bunch of freshly picked peas.
Paige Patterson has too many tomatoes planted on her property, which is, of course, no big surprise.