When we first arrived at Chelsea we made a beeline for the Great Pavilion and my favourite kind of display – those which combine beauty and productivity. I really enjoy the Pennard Plants gardens and always come away with ideas for new crops to grow the following year.
This year was no different. The gold medal winning display covered 90 years of growing, exploring how allotments have developed since 1926 and the birth of Queen Elizabeth II. The first allotment plot included a greenhouse from the 1870s and was planted with fruit and vegetables of the period. There was a regimented air to the planting with all the crops standing to attention in military rows. The plot was packed with vibrant, healthy plants and focused largely on producing as many essential vegetables as possible to supply the demand for food after WW1. The allotment contained examples of vegetables grown from Pennard Plants’ heritage seed range and also included a compost area and beehive – valuable resources then as now.
The middle plot was a Chelsea Pensioners Allotment and emulated some of the allotment cultivation going on in the Royal Hospital every year. This time the planting was more mixed, with flowers, fruit and vegetables growing together in cheerful harmony. Nasturtium ‘Empress of India’ and ‘Alaska’ provide peppery leaves and petals for salads and young seed pods can be pickled as an alternative to capers. Borage and calendula attract the pollinators and their petals can also be used in salads, whilst in the foreground Moroccan Mint and Creeping Red Thyme provide leaves for tea and add flavour to all manner of soups, stews and salads.
The third plot brought the story up to date with the Modern Allotment. Many of the planting was container-based in galvanised troughs allowing plot holders to move their crops between sites and enabling people to grow in the smallest of spaces. This modular and moveable approach to growing works well in rented properties. The ability to maximise growing space by adding extra soil depth to raised beds also allows gardeners with small outdoor spaces the opportunity
The mirrored shed designed to merge into the background was a modern take on allotment storage and the plot also housed chickens and bees, suggesting the role of animals in modern self-sufficiency. However, it was the more unusual fruit and vegetables which lured me in – resulting in my spending a long time taking pictures, asking questions and swapping advice.
Some of these 10 unusual crops I’ve grown before and are now family favourites, some I’ve heard about and wanted to try, and others are exciting new discoveries. Read on to try something new or add your comments to the blog post and let me know what has worked for you, what hasn’t and any tips you’d give the novice grower:
1. Ground nut (Apios americana) – climbing herbaceous vine with edible tubers and seed pods. Mild flavour and 3 times the amount of protein of modern potatoes. Likes moist, well-drained soil in sun or part shade. Would work well in forest gardens as it can be left to climb through shrubs or trees.
2. Earth chestnut (Bunium bulbocastanum) – beautiful umbellifer which would be at home as much in the flower garden as the allotment. Tubers taste of chestnuts and both leaves and seeds can be used as a flavouring or garnish. Easy to grow and hardy. I’ll be trying this one out next year…
3. Red perilla (Perilla frutescens var. crispa) – a cut and come again salad leaf from Southeast Asia. This half-hardy annual looks stunning for those who like colour in the vegetable plot or who aspire to create a potager garden as an ornamental as well as productive feature. Can be used to give a scarlet colour to pickled dishes and flower buds and seeds can also be eaten. Mild aniseed-mint flavour, milder than green varieties. Grow from seed each year.
4. Chinese celery (Oenanthe javanica ‘Flamingo’) – beautiful variegated leaves with a pink tinge to the outer edge. Distant relative to parsley, the leaves are best steamed or used as a garnish and have a celery-like taste. Needs a moist, semi-shaded spot in the garden. Vigorous grower, hardy down to about -10.
Warning – many members of this genus are extremely poisonous, so if you intend to harvest the plant, ensure it comes clearly labelled with the correct Latin name.
5. Wasabi (Wasabia japonica) – the Japanese horseradish root has a spicy heat which livens up all manner of dishes, such as mashed potato, salads (good in salad dressing) and marinades. The plant takes 2 years to reach maturity and needs acid soil with moist, shady conditions. It can be grown in pots of aquatic compost placed in a tray of water or in boggy ground.
6. Yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) – a tuber from Peru, closely related to sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes. They look rather like potatoes and have a taste rather like a pear crossed with mild celery – in Peru they are eaten more as a fruit than a vegetable. The plants are perennial – dig the tubers up to harvest and select several large tubers to overwinter in a frost free place. These can then be planted out the following spring.
7. Callaloo (Amarathus spp.) – this attractive plant is also known as amaranth or love lies bleeding and is often used as an ornamental specimen. The seeds can be sown direct from late May to early August and will grow into plants for cropping within 6 weeks. Leaves can be used as a cut and come again salad crop and also fried in curries or cooked in soups – basically used in the same way as spinach. My confession is that I sowed two packets of callaloo seed last year at two different times and not a single seed germinated. Any thoughts on what I was doing wrong would be gratefully received!
8. Mexican tree spinach (Chenopodium giganteum) – an annual which will self-seed and is a relative of quinoa and the weed fat hen (Chenopodium album) which is also edible. The young leaves and tips can be harvested continually and used as a leafy green in the same way as spinach and with a similar taste.
9. Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata) – a frost tender perennial herb with a lemony coriander taste. It can be grown in a pot and overwintered indoors or simply transplanted from the ground to a pot for overwintering. Grow in a sheltered spot in full sun or partial shade, in rich, fertile soil. Can be eaten fresh in salads and used in soups and stews.
10. Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) – a favourite tuber in our family, we’ve been growing this Andean tuber crop for several years now and this year I’m also growing 14 trial plants as part of the Guild of Oca Breeders study to develop a genetically diverse, day neutral oca which will crop more heavily in the UK than current varieties. Oca can be a range of bright colours from yellows to whites, reds and pinks. They are harvested around November and nothing makes me happier in the rather drab autumn vegetable garden than digging up a treasure trove of little red gems to roast for tea. The tubers are sweeter if left for a fortnight or so on a sunny windowsill. They have a lemony taste and can also be eaten raw. Leaves can also be eaten, provided they are taken in moderation so as not to disturb the plant’s growth and eaten in moderation as they contain oxalic acid like sorrel, spinach and rhubarb. Leaves should not be consumed if you suffer from rheumatism or arthritis.
I also got a lovely collection of new chillies to grow from seed next year, recommended by Chris Smith at Pennard Plants. The rest of my family would probably say I already grow enough different chillies, but I love experimenting with new plants. If you would like to try something new, you can get more information on the Pennard Plants website. Follow my blog for more ideas on growing something a bit different and let me know how you get on…
Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.