University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Winnebago County

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Unusual Vegetables

Interest in growing (and eating) unusual vegetables is rising. Traditional vegetable gardening has waned for a number of years, but as our taste and menus expand to international cuisine, gardeners are intrigued by the opportunity to grow nontraditional vegetables. Adventurous gardeners (and cooks) might want to try some of these vegetables this year.

Lovers of Mexican food can make their own green salsa by growing tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa). A papery husk encloses the tomato-like fruit. This relative of tomato and pepper likes warm temperatures. Tomatilloes are planted as seeds or transplants about 24 inches apart in the middle of May (in northern Illinois). Their culture is the same as tomatoes. The fruit is ripe when the husks turn brown.

Arugula (Eruca vesicaria var. sativa) is a trendy addition to mixed green salads. The leaves have a sharp spicy flavor similar to peppercress or horseradish. A member of the cabbage and mustard family, arugula needs cool temperatures to grow and will bolt (send up a flower stalk) during hot weather. It should be planted in mid to late April, and late August to September. Arugula is grown from seed sown 1/2 to 1 inch deep in rows 12 to 18 inches apart. Plants should be thinned to 4 inches apart. Thinned plants are great in salads. During cool weather a rosette (clump) of deeply divided leaves will grow quickly. About six weeks after sowing, the plant will be large enough to begin harvesting individual tender young leaves. Arugula can become bitter as the leaves age and flowers develop. Remove plants when they bolt. The young leaves taste best so plant a few seeds weekly in spring and fall for a prolonged harvest.

Vegetarians and other soy lovers should consider growing edible soybeans (Glycine max). Soybeans can be eaten as a fresh vegetable or, like many beans, harvested dry at the end of the season. Garden soybean varieties include ‘Black Jet’, ‘Butterbeans’, ‘Envy’, ‘Fiskeby V’, ‘Maple Arrow’, and ‘Prize.’ They are shorter plants that mature earlier than field soybeans. The seeds are larger and easier to shell. Edible soybeans are grown like snap beans. They should be planted in middle May and take 70 to 90 days to reach the fresh harvest stage. The pods should be full, green, and hairy. Green soybeans are difficult to shell, but boiling for 1 to 3 minutes or steaming for 5 minutes will make the job easier. For sprouting, tofu, and other uses soybeans should be left on the plant until the pods just begin to brown and dry. At this point shelling is easy. In fact, many edible soybeans will burst from the pod on their own when dry.

In northern Illinois, perennial vegetables are fairly unusual in themselves. When asked, most gardeners will list asparagus and rhubarb. But horseradish (Armoracia rusticanna) is a very hardy, easy to grow perennial crop. Although most people purchase processed horseradish (Illinois is the number one state in commercial horseradish production), the gourmet may prefer homegrown for its pungent freshness. Root cuttings or crown divisions are planted in early spring. Roots should be placed 18 to 24 inches apart in shallow trenches then covered with 4 to 5 inches of soil. Crowns are planted at soil level. Horseradish prefers loose fertile soil with regular watering. During hot periods the plants will wilt and require supplemental watering. The plants will be 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall. Although horseradish will live years without care, optimum production occurs with yearly division and replanting. Roots may be dug anytime from hard frost in fall until new growth in spring. Pencil sized roots should be saved for harvest the following year. It is best to dig the roots just before using them, but they may be dug, cleaned, and stored at 32 degrees F.

Many gardeners grow onions, a few raise garlic, but hardly any cultivate shallots (Allium cepa var. aggregatum). Connoisseurs prize shallot’s delicate flavor in sauces, soups, and roasts. Common varieties are ‘Dutch Yellow’, ‘French’, ‘Epicurean’, ‘Frog Legs’, ‘Pink’, and ‘Prince de Bretagne’. Pink tinged varieties are considered superior. Shallots are planted as individual bulbs 1 to 1 1/2 inches deep and 3 to 4 inches apart in early spring. They may be harvested like green onions when the tops are 6 to 8 inches tall. For larger dry bulbs, harvest should be delayed until the tops brown and dry out in summer. Store shallots as you would onions.


April-May 2003: Planting Trees | Prevent Garlic Mustard from Setting Seed | The Roses Are Coming | Unusual Vegetables

Past Issues

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