Snake beans
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Growing unusual crops: A variation on the familiar

From Sarah's garden to yours

The weekly trip to the supermarket often finds us buying the same old things time and again, carrots, broccoli, pumpkin, potatoes, and zucchini, with a dash of variety thrown in for seasonal interest. Often the vegetables on offer don’t stray far from the ordinary and so our diet became predictable with what is easy, convenient, and recognisable.

As a home gardener, the range of vegetables you can grow and serve allows you to push the boundaries by expanding the colours, shapes, and sizes of the produce you are familiar with. You can push the boat out even further with some very strange crops that you didn’t even know existed but that could easily become family favourites.

Some unusual crops don’t stray far from the familiar so are a good starting point. Why not try one of these:

SNAKE BEANS Vigna unguiculata ssp. sesquipedalis

Also known as Yard Long Beans, these beans provide an alternative to the normal green beans that are typically grown in suburban backyards. They originate in Southern Asia and while the plant is a legume like the ordinary beans and they can be used in a similar way to green beans in the kitchen, they are actually from a completely different family.

Like climbing beans, they need a support structure to grow up on. The plants can get over 3 metres tall but it is the length of the bean that is its most interesting feature. They can grow to 100cm long but are most tender for eating when they reach 40cm in length. Once they get started, they will need to be harvested daily up until the first frost of autumn.

They do well in rich free-draining soil in a sunny spot in the garden about 30 – 60 cm apart with a good distance between the rows. You can get varieties that a green or purple with the purple one holding their colour once cooked and both taste similar to what you would expect from a bean.

Elephant garlic

ELEPHANT GARLIC Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum

Although it originates from Central Asia, elephant garlic is now commonly grown all over the world. It is a member of the onion family, like traditional garlic, but is more closely related to leeks. The flavour is milder than what is expected from garlic, so adds a more subtle flavour to a dish. Its stand-out feature is its size. It grows similarly to normal garlic, with individual cloves within the bulb, but they can be up to 15 cm across!

Plant elephant garlic in the same way as you would normal garlic – separate out each clove and plant in the middle of winter. They need more space to allow for the bulb to form though and enough space for good airflow. The recommended planting spacing is about 10 cm deep and around 25 cm apart. They like a well-drained soil mixed with plenty of organic material. Make sure to water well throughout the growing season but remember that if it gets too wet, the garlic can rot.

It will send up a flower stalk that can be harvested and eaten while in the bud stage. It makes an impressive sphere shaped flower that can be dried and used in arrangements, but be aware that allowing it to flower can reduce the size of the bulb slightly. Harvest in the summer once the leaves begin to brown and when stored in a cool dry place they can last for several months.

Glass Gem Corn


Sweetcorn is a lovely summer staple vegetable that is enjoyed in so many ways but eaten straight off the cob is always such a simple pleasure. To step away from the ordinary, there are other types of corns that can be grown in the garden and the most impressive one has to be Glass Gem Corn. It isn’t like sweetcorn in that it isn’t generally harvested in its fresh state, but allowed to mature, ideally on the plant, until it has completely dried out.

Instead of the usual yellow colour you would expect from corn, this variety has quasi-translucent kernels, resembling jewels, in a rainbow of colours. Glass gem corn came to be when an American farmer, Carl Barnes, began growing native corn while reconnecting with his native American roots. After many years of growing corn, he came up with this delightful variety.

Glass Gem Corn is a form of flint corn and can be eaten as popcorn, or can be ground down to make cornmeal used in baking. You could also take advantage of their beauty and use them in ornamental displays.

They are grown in much the same way as normal sweetcorn in rich free-draining soil. Corn is a hungry crop so regular watering and feeding during the growing season is a must. Corn is wind-pollinated so should be planted in a block with 60 – 90 cm between each plant; you can expect 3 – 5 cobs per plant. Plant out in the garden, from seed or seedling, once the risk of frost has passed using good mulch to help lock in the moisture. Harvest once the kernels are ‘as hard as flint’.


KALETTES Brassica oleracea

These brassica are a cross between kale and brussels sprouts that originated in England thanks to traditional breeding techniques. They are a relatively recent addition to the vegetable family having only been released to the market in 2010. They can make a great substitute for brussels sprouts in warmer climates where sprouts are difficult to grow since they prefer cooler conditions and can fail to make the desired bud (or can ‘blow’ becoming unsuitable for eating) if it is too warm.

Kalettes grow in a similar way to brussels sprouts but, instead of the mini cabbage-looking bud, create flower sprouts up the stem in the leaf joints. Grow them as you would most brassicas in rich soil kept well watered and fed throughout the growing season. They need to be planted about half a metre apart as they can become rather large plants. Make sure you plant them in a different place each season to avoid the risk of club root disease building up in the soil.