Each spring gardeners plan out their vegetable gardens with tomatoes, onions, and peppers predominating. There is good reason for that; few other crops are as useful and versatile in the kitchen. However, if you are looking to add some diversity to your vegetable garden this year, here are five less common choices that are very easy to grow in your garden. Plus, each of these crops can be planted now.
Kale: The health experts tout this as one of the healthiest foods you can eat. The good news for gardeners is kale is incredibly easy to grow. Sow seed directly in the ground as soon as the soil can be tilled in the spring. Once the plants are established, leaves can be harvested for use. The mature plant is cold hardy and will survive very low temperatures in the fall. In fact, it typically outlives all of the other plants in the vegetable garden.
Parsnips: This surprisingly tasty and versatile root requires a long season to grow but can be kept in the garden over the winter for storage. Direct seed parsnip any time after April 1st in Iowa for a fall or following spring harvest.
Amaranth: As a grain crop with an ancient history, this incredibly fertile plant (hundreds of thousands of seeds are produced on one plant) can yield a rewarding harvest. Two words of warning: it is closely related to a common garden weed in Iowa, red root pigweed, and the seed has to be properly winnowed to be useful in the kitchen.
Rutabaga: As a member of the Brassicaceae family (as is kale), this root crop has that distinctive broccoli flavor. However, if roots are harvested early they are more tender and mild. Since the seed are so small, plantings typically need to be thinned in early May.
Garlic scapes: While garlic is planted in the fall and not necessarily a unique crop, harvesting the immature flower buds are not a common practice among most gardeners. Watch for the flower stalks to emerge in early May. As soon as they begin to curl, but before the flowers open, they are ready for harvest. Cut the stalk as close to the foliage as possible. They add a fresh garlic taste to cuisine.
Additional information for the more common vegetable crops in your garden can be found in the ISU Extension publications PM 819, Planting a Home Vegetable Garden or PM 534, Planting and harvesting times for garden vegetables.
An amaranth. Photo by Jennifer Bousselot