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The Green Life: Quirky, Perhaps, But Easy to Grow (and Fun to Eat)

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April 15, 2011

Quirky, Perhaps, But Easy to Grow (and Fun to Eat)

Most gardeners feel confident nurturing backyard mainstays like tomatoes, lettuce, and rosemary but get intimidated by quirkier crops. So we asked horticulture experts to recommend offbeat but easy-to-grow fruit and vegetables. Here are their picks.

MARK FERGUSON is the executive chef at Spago Beaver Creek at the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch in Avon, Colorado. His garden on the resort's terrace supplies much of the restaurant's harvest-to-table cuisinePrior to that, he was chef de cuisine at Spago Las Vegas, preparing private dinners for dignitaries including Bill and Hillary Clinton.

I recommend the fava bean for home gardens because it's versatile, hearty, and produces a high yield. With nutty, creamy, and slightly sweet flavors, the bean can be grilled, roasted, or slow-cooked and complements a wide variety of cuisines. Plant it in early spring, after the last frost, in soil rich with organic nutrients. The fava bean thrives in partial shade, sowed about a half-inch deep and four inches apart, against a wall or trellis. In dry climates, it's crucial to lightly water the plant consistently, as opposed to soaking it at odd intervals. If you harvest the bean when it's young, it's sweeter and more delicate. As the pods grow larger, the beans get an earthier flavor and firmer texture.

SONDRA BERNSTEIN owns three renowned restaurants in Sonoma, California, including the girl and the fig and Estate, whose on-property garden is the source of many of the menu's ingredients. She also wrote The Girl and the Fig Cookbook.

“Fig trees aren't hard to maintain, but you really should be a fig lover if you're going to plant one at home. Fortunately, I have a fig obsession. There are two harvest seasons; some years you'll get lots of fruit, and some years you may be waiting around. Unless you have a wonderfully humid greenhouse, I wouldn't recommend keeping a fig tree indoors. They do best in full sun, with not too much wind. Because figs are so versatile, you can eat them raw off the tree, dry them, make jams and preserves, grill them, or bake them to be served over ice cream.

NICHOLAS STADDON is the director of new plants for Monrovia, a Southern California nursery that earned the EPA Evergreen Award for its pollution-prevention efforts. He travels the world and works with breeders and plant hunters to discover the next big gardening trend.

If you've never tried a kumquat, you're in for a treat. The fruits have a sweet rind, but the orange flesh is tart — a delicious contrast in flavors. Eat them right from the garden, toss them in a salad, or make marmalade. A kumquat tree is compact and easy to grow. If you live in a warmer climate, it can reach eight feet. In colder regions, plant it in a container that can be brought indoors and situate it in a sunny spot. The tree will stay dwarf and perfume your home with a heavenly fragrance when in bloom, then get loaded with bright-orange fruit that's stunning against its dark-green foliage. Plant kumquat trees — whether indoors or out — in well-draining soil and water them weekly (more in very hot weather), making sure they get full to partial sun.

JIMMY WILLIAMS and SUSAN HEEGER are the authors of From Seed to Skillet: A Guide to Growing, Tending, Harvesting, and Cooking Up Fresh, Healthy Food to Share With People You Love. Williams is an urban farmer in Los Angeles; he grows and sells heirloom tomatoes from seeds passed down from his great-great-grandmother, who carried them to America on a slave ship. Heeger, also from L.A., is a journalist who covers home and garden.

The deep-purple giant eggplant sold at supermarkets is just one form this vegetable takes. Others — hard to find unless you grow them yourself — include long, thin ones; green varieties; and some that look like plums. Rich and creamy, these smaller types are a snap to grow in full sun and summer heat — the hotter, the better. Start seeds indoors in bright light three weeks before the last predicted frost, or buy seedlings from a farmers' market. Plant the seedlings 10 to 18 inches apart, spreading half a cup of organic fertilizer around each. Let the soil dry a bit between waterings. Within weeks, you'll be enjoying caponata, moussaka, and baba ghanouj.

STELLA OTTO, a Michigan horticulturist, wrote The Backyard Orchardist: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruit Trees in the Home Garden. With more than 25 years of experience growing fruit, she’s been an orchard manager and a farming-workshop leader.

“Hardy kiwifruit are novel but easy. The smooth-skinned fruit tastes both sweet and tangy. I've planted the decorative vines — two females with a male in between — on the north side of my pasture fence. The posts, 10 feet apart, provide the perfect support and spacing for their vigorous growth, while also shading the root systems. The fence line makes a convenient trellis. My soil is fertile but sandy and well-drained, a must for these vines. I side-dress them with composted horse manure. A deep watering, once weekly, is best to help them develop a root system free of disease. As for pruning and vine positioning, I treat them pretty much like grapes. They'll put out their fragrant flowers and fruit on new growth that originates on last season's spurs.

Goji berries MARK DIACONO is the head gardener of River Cottage, a farm, cooking school, and tourist destination in Dorset, England. He’s also the author of The Food Lover's Garden: Amazing Edibles You Will Love to Grow and Eat.

I love goji berries because, unlike some of the more troublesome fruit, they just require that you don’t plant them anywhere too wet and that you give them some sun. Maintenance is a matter of pruning them to size. That’s it. It’s easy to be put off their flavor by trying them too early, before perfect ripeness. Once they’re ripe, though, their small, oval, orange-red berries are tasty, mild, and complex. Better still, dry them slowly — they’re incredible thrown into muesli or granola. Plus, goji berries are a superfood crammed full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. And they're as happy in pots as they are in the ground.

Paprika peppers ROSALIND CREASY is a garden and food writer, photographer, and landscape designer in Northern California. She has written 18 books about gardening and cooking; her latest is Edible Landscaping: Now You Can Have Your Gorgeous Garden and Eat it Too!

Many folks already successfully grow peppers — sweet, chili, or frying — and can easily add a handsome paprika pepper plant or two to be able to make their own spectacular paprika. A variety called ‘Boldog Hungarian Spice’ requires full sun and rich, well-drained soil. Grow it amongst low-growing annuals like nasturtiums or dwarf zinnias for a hot, bold impact; the peppers are gorgeous and show off well as they ripen to a rich red. The best sources for seeds are Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Fedco. I make Hungarian paprika from the plants I grow, and it’s nothing like that bland red powder you buy at the grocery store — people are amazed at its deep, spicy aroma.

--Avital Binshtock

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