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Curious VeggIes: Easy-to-grow goodness

Mar 1st, 2012 | Category: Growing

by Chuck McClung

After a few efforts in backyard gardening, you find that there are at least a few crops that have consistent success each year. Perhaps for you this means green beans, lettuce, carrots, or zucchini. For something a little different, I often encourage gardeners to try a least one new veggie each year. Following are some suggestions for a few unusual, lesser common, but easy-to-grow veggies. All are easy to find locally as started plants or in seed packages.


Ground cherries: To start, I think ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa) are one of the easy-to-grow, backyard veggie crops of the future. Ground cherries are in the tomato family and have many names like husk tomato, strawberry tomato, and bladder tomato.They are most closely related to tomatillos and the ornamental perennial, Chinese Lanterns (Physalis alkagenii).

Ground cherries look like a much smaller version of a tomatillo with that characteristic “paper husk.”  The fruit inside, however, is much smaller – about the size of a marble – and is brownish tan. It has a very unique flavor which reminds me of buttered popcorn.

These plants require sun and regular water but only grow to one to two feet tall, so most garden spaces have room for one or two of these little treasures. Harvested fruits seem to store well and retain their flavor for a long time.

Sunchokes: Sunchokes or Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are gaining a resurgence in popularity these days. They are not artichokes and they are not from Jerusalem. This Northeastern North American native is actually a spreading, perennial, sunflower with an edible tuberous root. Once quite popular, sun hokes were also named the poor man’s vegetable.

Sunchokes are difficult to find as seeds, but one often purchases the tubers in fall or winter, which are ready for planting. They are very easy to grow, reaching three to sometimes eight feet tall and are topped with two- to four-inch sunflower-like flowers during the summer. Give them lots of sun and be ready to water for good tuber formation.


I see two common varieties: those with tan colored skins, and those with reddish-brown colored skins. There appears to be no difference between the two in growth habit or taste, but I’ve found the red ones easier to slice. They have a good, nutty flavor and can be chopped and eaten raw or used like a water chestnut substitute in a stir fry. I’ve thinly sliced them, soaked them in lime, kelp and thyme, and dehydrated them to make sun choke chips. Yum!

Because of their spreading, invasive growth habit, sunchokes are definitely not for the mixed perennial border. Plant in patches surrounded with bamboo barrier to stop their spreading habit, as one would with bamboo. Planting in containers is another option, and with that I have two suggestions: (1) use a big pot, to accommodate the tuber growth for the year, and (2) be ready to water; they’ll use a lot of water when grown in containers.

Chioggia beets: Chioggia beets are perhaps the most colorful root crops one can grow. They are grown just like regular beets and look the same on the outside. However, Chioggia beets, when cut in cross section, reveal colorful, candy cane colored, red and white concentric circles. Impress your friends with this colorful addition to your meals.

Mache or Corn Salad: Mache or Corn Salad or Lamb’s Lettuce (Valerianella locusta) is one of my absolute favorite salad greens. You won’t find it in stores, but sometimes available at farmers markets, because it doesn’t keep or store for long.

Mache is an extremely cold and frost hardy annual. The leaves have a very mild flavor and very soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture reminiscent of butter crunch lettuce. Because the plant is tolerant of snow and frost, I like to use it in the winter salad garden. I let plants reseed during the year or plant from seed in the early fall. When temperatures warm in late winter and early spring, plants will really begin to grow. The whole plant grows to about 8 to 10 inches tall and wide. The entire plant can be eaten, but has the best flavor and softest texture if harvested before the plant flowers.

Lemon Cucumbers: Lemon Cucumbers look like lemons but taste like cucumbers. Lemon cukes are becoming more popular, and I see them more and more in farmers markets. Because the fruit size is smaller than all other cukes, they ripen more quickly, and hold well when grown on trellises.

The fruits are ready to harvest when they are between the size of a racquet ball and a tennis ball and have a light, bright yellow color. Darker tan markings usually indicate you’ve waited too long to pick them, and they’ll be real seedy with a more bitter, less fresh taste. These are incredibly easy to grow and very unique in appearance.

8 Ball Zucchini: Along the lines of the lemon cucumber is the 8 Ball Zucchini. Yes, when ready to pick, this zucchini looks like an eight ball. Use your imagination a little, because they’re not actually black, but super dark green, and unfortunately, there is no “8” on the side.

Like lemon cukes, you’ll get a quicker harvest with 8 Ball Zucchinis because the fruit is smaller than standard zucchinis. Harvest when they’re about the size of a tennis ball. They will reach the size of a large grapefruit if left unpicked, but the skin gets much harder, and the flavor decreases with much more seediness. Again, very easy to grow, and like all zucchini, one plant is usually plenty.

Sweet Banana Peppers: Sweet Banana Peppers are my absolute favorite sweet pepper. Long and skinny, banana peppers are shaped like bananas. They ripen to a bright yellow color and will occasionally show tints of red if you start early and/or get some good heat in your Pacific Northwest garden space.

I like them for many reasons. They are very sweet and have a much thinner wall; like lemon cukes and 8-balls, because they’re a smaller fruit, they tend to mature and ripen more quickly than sweet bell peppers. Furthermore, in a hot sunny space, you‘ll get lots of peppers on each plant.

So these are a few lesser common, unusual, but easy to grow veggies for your backyard garden. For more ideas in this year’s veggie garden, I’ll be giving a free seminar “Curious, Easy-to-Grow Veggies for the Backyard Garden,” on Saturday, March 17 at 10 a.m. at Bakerview Nursery in Bellingham. Hope to see you there, and be sure to have fun in your veggie garden this year.

Chuck McClung has been gardening for over 30 years, has a Master’s Degree in Botany from Washington State University, and helps others solve their gardening dilemmas. He is a manager at Bakerview Nursery in Bellingham and can be reached at

Published in the March 2012 issue of Grow Northwest magazine.

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