by Mark & Ben Cullen
“Garden variety” garden varieties are popular for good reason. Reliable performers. Carrots with a long, sweet root. What is not to like?
Then there are days when we just want to try a new dance, some new moves. In gardening terminology that means growing unusual plants. Can you relate?
If you can, try these outside the box plants for a change this season:
Peanuts are legumes, in the pea family, but they grow like potatoes. You plant the seed, an unroasted red-skin peanut. Here in Canada, plants will produce mature peanuts in about 100 days. That is a long season, but it can be done in a hot, sunny location. And if you sow the seed within the next week or so.
Mark grows peanuts every year, not to save money but for the novelty. Once mature peanuts are dug and dried in the sun, they are roasted in the oven (350 Degrees for 20 minutes). You have not likely tried anything like freshly dug and roasted peanuts. Truthfully, they have little in common with the canned varieties.
Peanuts produce glossy deep green foliage that looks good in a container and bright orange pea-like flowers mid summer. Not many edible plants produce orange flowers. Another bonus for the peanut club.
Kiwi. The fruit that you purchase at the retailer has little in common with the winter hardy twining kiwi vine that we grow. Hardy to zone 2 or north of Edmonton, Kiwi is easy to grow. All you need is vertical support like a trellis or a tall post. They grow fast, about two metres each season, are insect and disease resistant and produce the sweetest tasting grape-sized kiwi fruit late in summer. The key is to plant a male and female plant. Plant as many females as you like but at least one male to do the heavy lifting in the pollinating department. The plants are labelled at the retailer. Prefer sun but tolerate some shade.
Prune heavily each summer, twice, to keep your kiwis under control.
4 in 1 Apple trees. You are short of space and you enjoy apples. The answer may be to plant one tree with four different varieties grafted onto it. You will harvest different varieties of apples at different times of the year. In theory. We have less enthusiasm for this idea than we do for our first two, but this can work. The problem is that, over years, one variety inevitably dominates the tree and takes over. The answer is to be diligent and prune the aggressor back hard each winter to allow the other grafted branches to mature and bear fruit. When you find a four in one apple tree you will be given no choice as to the varieties featured on it.
The answer to that is to graft your favourites yourself, which is a bit tricky but can be done with some knowledge and good timing.
Baby Carrots. There are true baby carrots, that is, carrots that do not grow over 8 or 10 cm long and are generally more sweet than larger carrots. We recommend you sow the seed directly in your garden any time now. Two popular varieties include Babette and Little Finger, both bred in France for the gourmet food market. Sweet.
Do not confuse the real thing with carrot parts that have been shaved down to a standard five cm long orange carrot piece, sold in hermetically sealed bags at the grocers with a bit of water to keep them from dehydrating. If your baby carrots do not have a green top, they likely are not the real thing.
There are other novelty plants that you can grow. Most are available at full-service garden retailers or as seeds online. Our list includes square tomatoes that will not roll off the table, popcorn, and myriad non-traditional vegetables and herbs. Novelty plants are just one more way to have fun in your garden this summer.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and Member of the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, and on Facebook.