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10 Attention Grabbing Heirloom Vegetables to Grow This Year

Maybe you’re bored with plain green beans. Or perhaps those beefsteak tomatoes just aren’t cutting it for you anymore. Orange carrots? Boring, everyone grows those.

Could be you’re a foodie with a green thumb looking to expand your culinary horizons beyond your local supermarket.

This year fill your garden and your kitchen with some weird and wonderful vegetables.

Purple beans? You bet! Red carrots, oh yeah! Red orach? What on earth is that?

There’s an entire world of diverse veggie offerings beyond what you can find in your local nurseries and the seed packets available at the big box garden center.

Nutritionally speaking, food diversity is essential to make sure we get all of the nutrients we need.

Food diversity is equally important when it comes to what we grow. With the ever-increasing development of GMO seeds, we are losing vast numbers of varieties of vegetables.

According to an article in Fast Company by Mark Wilson, from 1903 to 1983, we lost around 93% of our vegetable seed variety. 93%!

That’s mind-blowing.

And that’s just up to 1983! How many more varieties have been lost since that study was conducted?

People are beginning to understand the importance of growing diverse crops on the land to protect and nourish the soil, and so we’ve seen a recent uptick in the popularity of heirloom vegetable seeds.

This year, why not try some heirloom seeds?

I’m always astounded by the beautiful colors that can be found in heirloom varieties.

Yes, for a lot of these vegetables, it means starting them from seed. That’s all part of the enjoyment of gardening and for many, it’s an integral part of self-sustainability. Reconnect with where your food comes from, from seeds to the dinner table.

And speaking of diversity, why not check out some veggies that are completely unfamiliar to you.

If you’re an adventurous cook, try adding something new to your vegetable patch. Get the kids involved in picking out something new to try. A cucumber you can eat like an apple? Why not?

This list is just a small sampling of the different and unusual vegetables that lurk beyond what’s usually grown in every garden across the country. Check out company’s like Baker Creek Seeds (their catalog is gorgeous!) for an unbelievable selection of heirloom seeds or Johnny’s Selected Seeds for a great selection of non-GMO seeds as well.

Here are a few fun and exciting vegetables to get you started.

Let’s get growing!

1. King Tut Peas

King Tut peas

These wonderfully abundant peas are a joy to grow. Their deep purple shells make finding them on the vine incredibly easy.

The blossoms are equally beautiful, making this variety a great choice to grow in a permaculture setting.

But don’t just grow them for their unusual beauty, the King Tut is an excellent shelling pea too, and the pod can be eaten when they are still young.

Throw the tender new pods in a salad to add a delightful crunch and a splash of color. Like most peas, plant them in early spring.

Try It: King Tut Peas @ Baker Creek Seeds

2. Romanesco

Romanesco broccoli

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a head of Romanesco at a farmer’s market. I blurted out to the person behind the table, “What on earth is that?” It’s delicious is what it is!

Romanesco, also known as Roman broccoli, is part of the brassica family, similar to cauliflower and cabbage. The flavor is reminiscent of broccoli; only it’s less likely to get stuck in your teeth.

Roast it, toss it in a stir-fry, rice it, or simply steam it and serve it with butter.

This wild-looking veggie makes for a delicious and show-stopping side dish.

Romanesco thrives in well-drained soil with plenty of sun. If you live in an area with a shorter growing season, skip direct-seeding and use starts.

Try It: Romanesco Broccoli @ Baker Creek Seeds

3. Kalibos Cabbage

Kalibos cabbage

Sticking with the brassica family, check out the Kalibos cabbage, a stunning heirloom variety.

The head is cone-shaped, giving it an almost alien appearance.

Slice the cabbage into salads, chop it and add it to soups, or slice it into thick ‘steaks’ and roast it in the oven.

The Kalibos cabbage is an excellent choice that stores well and has a delicious sweet flavor.

Save the Kalibos for late-season planting as it does better as a cold-weather cabbage. This is one of many heirloom varieties that debunks the ‘ol hybrids are better myth.

Try It: Kalibos Cabbage @ Baker Creek Seeds

4. Cucamelon (Mexican Sour Gherkin)

These little guys, often referred to as Mexican sour gherkins, popped up at my local farmer’s market last year, and I thought they were tiny watermelons.

While the gherkin part of the name implies that they are cucumbers, they are, in fact, more like a tiny melon, with a cucumber flavor.

They’re also known as a mouse melon. A mouse melon! How cute is that?

The cucamelon grows to be about the size of a large grape and they are fantastic on salads, pickled, or popped in your mouth straight off the vine.

Patience is key when growing these little guys. They take a while to fruit, but once they do, holy cow, are they prolific!

They love warm weather and good soil with plenty of compost. The cucamelon is a vine, so you’ll need to provide it with a structure to climb.

Here’s our total guide to growing cucamelon in your own garden.

5. Bok Choy

Maybe you’ve eaten bok choy but never grown it, or perhaps this is your first time hearing about this delicious Asian veggie.

It’s sometimes known as pok choi and is yet another member of the brassica family.

Bok choy does best in bright sun and requires well-fertilized soil. For best results, plant Bok choy as a late summer or fall crop, as it’s known for bolting in the heat. Baker Creek Seeds even has a tiny bite-sized version.

Bok choy is a mustard green, like many popular Asian leafy greens. It has a milder flavor than other members of the mustard family and packs a lot of crunch.

It’s obviously wonderful in stir-fries and plunked in your bowl of ramen, but for exceptional flavor, try cutting it in half and searing it in a cast-iron skillet. Drizzle it with olive oil, a spritz of lemon and salt and pepper.

Here’s some more bok choy recipe ideas.

6. Crystal Apple Cucumber

A cucumber a day keeps the doctor away!

The crystal apple cucumber is a delightful vegetable, producing pale, yellowish round fruits about the size of a small apple.

They are very mild and sweet in flavor and lack the bitter after taste that can sometimes come with cucumbers.

Forget keeping a bowl of apples on the counter; this summer, why not a bowl of cucumbers to snack on?

If you live in an area that is cooler and has a shorter growing season, the crystal apple cucumber does best if planted as a start rather than direct-seeded.

To lengthen your harvest, you can direct-seed them in the summer to have a fall harvest. Plant them in well-drained soil in a location with full sun. They are a vine and will need some sort of structure to climb.

Try It: Crystal Apple Cucumber @ Baker Creek Seeds

7. Red Orach

Red what? Red orach. Think of it like the original spinach, only less bitter.

The flavor is a little difficult to describe but has a sort of fennel like quality to it.

This is another plant that is both unusual because it’s relatively unheard of, but also in its appearance. The leaves are a deep burgundy on one side and a lovely emerald on the other.

Grow orach, much like you would spinach. It’s a great spring and fall crop.

Like a lot of greens, orach releases a lot of moisture when it’s cooked. Red orach will release a pink liquid when cooked, giving you pink pasta or rice when mixed.

The small tender leaves are great in salads, and the larger, more mature leaves can be used in many of the same ways as spinach and other cooking greens.

It’s terrific served wilted and tossed with pasta, olive oil, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper.

Try It: Red Orach @ Baker Creek Seeds

8. Japanese Turnips

Last summer, my friends let me grab their CSA while they were on vacation.

In that week’s pickup were a small bunch of, what I assumed were white radishes. I was quickly corrected and told that they were Japanese turnips, sweeter and milder than the turnips I grew up with.

While I will eat them, turnips aren’t my favorite vegetable, so I was a little hesitant, but excited to try them out.

I roasted the tiny Japanese turnips and served them with salt and pepper. I was converted with the first bite, and then spent the rest of my summer grabbing them whenever I saw them at the farmer’s market.

These delicious turnips are fantastic roasted, sautéed, braised with butter and lemon, or even eaten raw.

Use the tops in salads or sautéed. When my favorite stand at the farmer’s market said that what they had was the last batch for the season, I bought all they had left and pickled them so I could enjoy them all winter long. Alas, it’s February and I’ve eaten them all.

A year ago I had never heard of Japanese turnips, now they are my new favorite vegetable.

These will surely have a place in my garden this year and I encourage you to give them a try as well.

Plant them in moist soil with plenty of sun. These do best in the spring and fall. Plant a new row every couple of weeks to keep up a steady supply.

Try It: Japanese Turnip @ Baker Creek Seeds

9. Green Zebra Stripe Tomato

When you mention heirloom vegetables, tomatoes are usually the first thing that comes to mind. That’s because of all the seed varieties that have been lost, tomatoes have struggled less than most vegetables.

This means there is a wonderful assortment of heirloom tomato varieties to choose from.

The green zebra stripe tomato makes a striking addition to your table as well as your garden.

They are easy to grow and have a wonderfully sweet and slightly tangy flavor. You can tell they are ripe once the yellow stripes begin to show up.

This particular tomato makes for some visually appealing (as well as tasting!) salsa.

It’s one of the easier heirloom varieties to grow and produces plenty of baseball-sized tomatoes throughout the summer.

Try It: Green Zebra Tomato @ Baker Creek Seeds

10. Musquee Pumpkin

Musquee pumpkin

Hands down, this is my all-time favorite pumpkin for so many reasons.

It’s rustic shape and colors make it absolutely gorgeous for fall decorations. They are excellent keepers and last well into the winter if stored properly. (Check out our post on how to store winter squash for the winter!)

I have yet to find a pumpkin that can beat the flavor and texture of a good cheese wheel pumpkin.

The flesh of the Musquee pumpkin is a beautiful bright orange when it’s roasted, and the taste is sweet and creamy. This is what I use for all of my favorite pumpkin recipes – soup, cookies, bread, and of course, pie.

I even made a batch of pumpkin cyser with it (mead made with cider) this past fall. It’s everything you love about fall served in a glass.

I used freshly roasted Musquee Pumpkin to create an incredible fall-inspired cyser.

Give these pumpkins plenty of room and well-composted soil. Plant them in mounds. Patience is a must as they are a slow-maturing variety.

Try It: Musquee De Provence Pumpkin @ Baker Creek Seeds

This is just a small list of some of the more unusual vegetable options available to you.

Order a few seed catalogs from companies who specialize in heirloom varieties, and you’ll be amazed at the variety you’ve been missing out on.

Whether it’s a different variety of a tried and true favorite like carrots or growing an entirely new-to-you vegetable like ground cherries, make some room in your garden this year to try something different.

You never know what will end up being a new favorite.

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Tracey Besemer

Hey there, my name is Tracey. I’m the editor-in-chief here at Rural Sprout.

Many of our readers already know me from our popular Sunday newsletters. (You are signed up for our newsletters, right?) Each Sunday, I send a friendly missive from my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit like sitting on the front porch with a friend, discussing our gardens over a cup of tea.

Originally from upstate NY, I’m now an honorary Pennsylvanian, having lived here for the past 18 years.

I grew up spending weekends on my dad’s off-the-grid homestead, where I spent much of my childhood roaming the woods and getting my hands dirty.

I learned how to do things most little kids haven’t done in over a century.

Whether it was pressing apples in the fall for homemade cider, trudging through the early spring snows of upstate NY to tap trees for maple syrup, or canning everything that grew in the garden in the summer - there were always new adventures with each season.

As an adult, I continue to draw on the skills I learned as a kid. I love my Wi-Fi and knowing pizza is only a phone call away. And I’m okay with never revisiting the adventure that is using an outhouse in the middle of January.

These days, I tend to be almost a homesteader.

I take an eclectic approach to homesteading, utilizing modern convenience where I want and choosing the rustic ways of my childhood as they suit me.

I’m a firm believer in self-sufficiency, no matter where you live, and the power and pride that comes from doing something for yourself.

I’ve always had a garden, even when the only space available was the roof of my apartment building. I’ve been knitting since age seven, and I spin and dye my own wool as well. If you can ferment it, it’s probably in my pantry or on my kitchen counter. And I can’t go more than a few days without a trip into the woods looking for mushrooms, edible plants, or the sound of the wind in the trees.

You can follow my personal (crazy) homesteading adventures on Almost a Homesteader and Instagram as @aahomesteader.

Peace, love, and dirt under your nails,