Unusual bitter melon
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Growing unusual crops: Unexpected flavours

From Sarah’s garden to yours

Beyond growing the ordinary, useful family vegetables or luxurious edible crops, an adventurous gardener may seek something exciting and unusual, something not everyone grows. If you are interested in exploring new gardening territory, or are simply curious about other options, here are some ideas that are easy enough for a keen gardener with a taste for something new to try.

BITTER MELON  Momordica charantia

Bitterness is not a flavour that springs to mind as delicious, however bitter melon has been popular in India (where it originated), and in Asia, Africa, and other countries (where it spread), for centuries. 

Bitter melon is in the same Cucurbitaceae family as other melons, but that is where the resemblance ends. Looking more like a warty looking cucumber and growing in a similar way, bitter melon likes a rich free draining soil, ideally sandy or a silty loam. It likes a hot growing season with average temperatures of 24-31°C. Best planted out after the risk of frost has passed, bitter melon is grown up a trellis at least 2m tall as it is a vining plant with tendrils. It can grow up to 5m in length but can be pruned if it gets too unruly. Plants should be about a meter apart.

Approximately 60 days after planting, the fruit will be about 10–15cm long and green with a hint of yellow. This is the perfect time to harvest, and make sure to check the plant every few days for more. When harvested at the right time, bitter melons have a mild bitter flavour and a crunchy watery texture. They go well with spicy foods and therefore are perfect in curries. They can be stored in the fridge for up to 5 days. 

Unusual jicama tubers

JICAMA  Pachyrhizus tuberosus

This little known root vegetable from Mexico, pronounced Hee-Kah-mah meaning ‘edible storage root’, is also known by its common name Mexican Water Chestnut.  A globe-shaped root between 15–30cm in size, Jicama has a thick brown skin, but within is a white, crisp, starchy texture. While it can be cooked and added to stir fries, Jicama is best enjoyed raw, and is often added to salads where its fresh, crisp crunch can be enjoyed. The mild flavour is described as slightly sweet and nutty.

Jicama needs a long warm growing season, and a good 5-9 months of growth to get a good harvest. It can be started off indoors in late winter and planted outside once frost is no longer a risk. Growing it in a greenhouse should work in cooler areas. The tubers begin to form at the end of the growing season when the days are less than 9 hours long, so the plants may need frost protection at the end of the season.

Give Jicama a rich friable soil in full sun and plant seedlings about 20cm apart in rows up to 90cm apart. Jicama is a large plant that will need staking and be aware that it can get up to 6m in length but can be pruned to make it more manageable. Remove the purple pea-like flowers for a better yield, and avoid producing the beans which are toxic. If the tubers get exposed to the sun they can become toxic so mound up with earth as you would for potatoes. Make sure Jicama plants are well watered and feed regularly.  Dig up once the foliage has died down and store in a cool dark place.

Unusual salsify

SALSIFY  Tragopogon porrifolius

This long white carrot-like root crop is a member of the dandelion family, which comes from the Mediterranean area. Once boiled, it has a delicate oyster-like flavour, and can be enjoyed dressed with butter, or in soups. It is also delicious fried in the form of fritters.

Salsify is a cool weather crop and can be started when soil temperatures are around 4°C. In places with mild winters, it can be grown in the autumn for a winter harvest. Like carrots, the soil needs to be light and fluffy with no lumps or bumps and with manure or nitrogen kept to a minimum, too much will cause the salsify root to fork.

Sow seeds directly in the garden, and thin to 10cm apart in rows that are 50cm apart. In 120 days, it will be ready for harvest - take care not to break the roots while digging it up. You can take only what you need as it will keep well in the soil, although the oyster flavour will diminish over time if left too long. Frost will improve the flavour and the texture so getting the timing right growing this crop is important.

Unusual oyster plant

OYSTER LEAF  Mertensia maritima

Staying on the oyster theme, the oyster leaf plant has almost succulent-like leaves that not only taste similar to oysters, but have their juiciness as well. A member of the borage family, it is a native of Scotland and is a cold hardy perennial that can be harvested from spring right through to autumn.

It grows well from seed, however keeping the seeds in the fridge for a couple of weeks before sowing in the autumn will help. Oyster leaf doesn’t like being moved and is considered quite fragile, so grow it in containers and take care when transplanting to the garden in the spring. It likes a free draining soil and dislikes excessive moisture but make sure to not allow it to dry out. Oyster leaf also prefers a shady spot and needs protection from slugs, snails, and frost. As it grows, cut the stem back by half regularly to strengthen the plant. Removing the flowers will also strengthen the plant and this also eliminates the risk of prolific self-seeding. Leaves can be picked 60 days following transplanting. Remember to harvest in the morning for more oyster flavour.