Many gardeners already know the joys of fresh, crisp cucumber, the sweet tenderness of fresh asparagus stems, or the juicy, sweet, yet tart flavor of tomatoes still warm from the sun. However, when we begin growing our own food, we find many vegetables and varieties we can grow that aren’t found in the supermarket. This season, we encourage you to branch out and try one of these lesser-known or underrated crops. Many of these are tasty, nourishing additions to the garden that fell out of favor with the advent of industrial agriculture.
Southern Peas or Cowpeas
Cowpeas are an underrated southern staple crop. The greens can be used as a potherb, the young pods can be used similar to green beans before the peas harden, or you can harvest them as dry peas for use in recipes like Hoppin’ John. These peas are commonly mashed and fried like falafels in parts of Africa.
They’re good for the garden too! Many beneficial insects find them attractive, and they’re nitrogen-fixing. Some cowpeas, like Iron & Clay, are often grown as a cover crop for these reasons.
Salsify is rarely seen at the grocery store or even at farmer’s markets. It was brought to the Americas by European colonists, but it never gained widespread popularity. However, there’s always been a devoted few who love this crop.
Salsify has a unique, almost oyster-like flavor you won’t find in other root crops. It also keeps well in the ground, helping you to stretch the season and eat fresh garden vegetables longer.
Rutabagas or Swedes are hardy root crops that fell out of fashion with modern grocery stores and shipping, though they remain popular in areas with cold climates like Canada. They are also still common in pasties in parts of the US, especially Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
They have a unique flavor, which some people find takes a bit of adjusting to. That said, they’re a hardy and nourishing addition to winter meals. If you’re unsure you’ll like them, try Gilfeather Turnip Rutabagas, a famous heirloom cross between turnips and rutabagas selected and named by Vermont farmer Jack Gilfeather. They’re sweeter than most rutabagas and have tender, tasty greens.
Easy to grow and with a peppery zing, it’s hard to believe cress has not gotten much recognition among the fandoms of greens like baby mustards and kale. Once a winter staple in parts of the mountain south, cress is full of vitamin C, a once life-saving characteristic when times were tough. In fact, Belle Isle Cress earned its name when 17th-century Portuguese sailors shipwrecked on Canada’s Belle Isle survived the winter thanks to these greens. Try cress as a potherb, in salads, or in the classic British egg and cress sandwich.
These dark berries may look a bit ominous, but they’re a tasty, sweet relative of the tomato. Garden Huckleberries or Wonderberries have a huckleberry-like flavor, making them excellent for dessert fillings, jellies, syrups, and more.
They’re a great fruit option for renters who can’t put perennial fruit trees or bushes into their garden plots. However, be aware that the green fruits are likely toxic and should not be consumed.
Parsnips are another root vegetable that has been used since antiquity but quickly fell out of prominent use when industrial agriculture, shipping, and grocery stores made produce accessible year-round, replacing root cellars and home canning.
Parsnips have a sweet, earthy flavor. While they may not be gorgeous or Instagram-worthy vegetables, they are a great choice for a winter storage crop.
This crop may not win any beauty contests, but it does have great flavor. Celeriac has sweet, starchy, globe-shaped roots that are excellent to use in soups and stews, boiled and pureed, fried in butter, or grated into salads.
Celeriac thrives in cool weather, making it another great option for those looking to extend their season.
We’re not big into “superfoods” and don’t believe that any of these crops will change your life. However, we do think these crops are all a bit underrated. Roots like celeriac, parsnips, rutabagas, cress, and salsify can help you eat from your garden a little longer each year. Huckleberries are a fun, unique fruit to try and one of the few annual fruits you can add to your garden without a big investment. Southern peas are versatile, tasty, easy to grow, and full of protein. Try a few of these underrated crops in your garden next season!