Vegetable garden experiments

Organic expert Sheena Adams shares some of her favourite seeds for the vegetable garden after experimenting with vegetables she'd never grown before.

Sheena Adams experiments with growing different veggies in her new raised beds

Last summer was all about being creative in the vegetable garden. With 12 new raised beds bursting with fresh, nutrient-rich soil, I had loads of room to play. My plan was to experiment with vegetables I had never grown.

The result was a garden full of new tastes and interesting conversation pieces like the elongated Russian Banana and deep-purple Russian Blue potatoes and gorgeous-green Oliver Brussels sprouts. My favourite was the long, pink-speckled, unnamed beans from my friend Sara. What a great way to increase seed inventory: I received seeds from a friend, given to her from another friend, and now I have extra to pass around to others.

Hopefully you can get some rare seeds from a friend. If not, here are some of my favourites. The seeds for these should be readily available, but remember to order early to guarantee a good supply at the seed company and ensure you receive them in plenty of time to sow.

Violetta di Chioggia artichoke (Cynara scolymus):

This is a decorative plant, with large, dissected, tropical-looking silver foliage. The artichoke heads are full of minerals and low in calories; simply steam them and serve with butter. Sow the seeds 2.5 cm (1 in.) deep in late February, and keep them moist and warm; 25ºC (77ºF) is optimum. Germination will occur anywhere between one and three weeks. Transplant seedlings out into the garden two weeks after the last frost. You can expect to harvest at the end of summer or early fall. In mild climates, you can lightly mulch artichokes to carry them through to the next year.

Transylvanian garlic (a cultivar of Allium sativum said to be discovered in a Romanian market in the mid-1990s):

This is a strong-flavoured soft-neck type with seven to 11 cloves per head. You can grow it in the ground or in a large container. Plant in early February for a larger and earlier harvest. You can also get a head start by planting your seed garlic cloves into containers a month to six weeks before the hard frosts have passed, then gently transplanting them when the ground has thawed. Use certified seed garlic cloves and plant them 5 cm (2 in.) deep in sterilized soil with added compost. Be sure to use a container that drains well, as over-moist soil will rot the clove. Place in a cool area that’s protected from freezing, such as near a window in an unheated garage or greenhouse, or against the south side of the house. Water when necessary to keep the soil moist and feed every two weeks with a liquid organic fertilizer. After the danger of frost is over and your soil has thawed, it’s time to transplant outside into rich, free-draining, compost-enriched soil. Come late summer, after the tops have dried, you can expect a bumper crop.

Ichiban eggplant (Solanum melongena):

This ornamental edible is beautiful, prolific and tasty. It is easily grown in the vegetable garden, or its stunning purple blooms and slender, shiny purple fruits can be enjoyed in a container. In April sow seeds indoors, 1-cm (1⁄2-in.) deep. Plant a few extra—only about half will germinate. Keep warm, about 28ºC (82ºF), and germination will occur in eight to15 days. Transplant into 15-cm (6-in.) pots before they become rootbound. Feed every two weeks with an organic fertilizer. Plant outside into the hottest part of the garden in the first week of June. I grow them in a tomato cage to get the plants off the ground and allow the sunlight to reach the fruit. You will be able to start harvesting in late August. Pick them as they mature to encourage more.

Turkish Orange eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum):

This is a wonderful little eggplant, brilliant orange and about the size and shape of a small head of garlic. Simply cut it in half and add it to a stir-fry for extra colour and flavour. It is an interesting conversation piece and provided a guessing game at many dinners. I grew it the same as the Ichiban eggplant, from seeding through harvest and look forward to growing it again.

Lemon cucumber (Cucumis sativus):

This little cucumber resembles a lemon and has a slightly citrus taste, but it is not at all bitter. Its yellow colour adds to summer salads and dip plates. Be sure to harvest when it is a light yellow and the size and shape of a lemon. If you leave it to get dark yellow and larger it will be watery and seedy, with a tough skin. Order your seeds early but sow later, around the first week of May. Cucumbers germinate and grow quickly, and really prefer not to spend too much time in their pots. Sow seeds in 10-cm (4-in.) pots with sterile soil and keep at room temperature; germination will occur in seven to 10 days. Begin applying a liquid organic fertilizer every two weeks after the second set of leaves has formed. In June, after the soil has warmed up and the seedlings have developed three to four sets of leaves, it’s time to transplant outside. This is another plant that benefits from a trellis or tomato cage that allows the plant to climb up, admitting more light and allowing easier picking. Harvest as they mature to encourage more.

Sweet Cluster tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum):

A true treasure, with grape-like clusters of elongated, brilliant-red cherry tomatoes. This is an indeterminate plant, which means it produces all season, and in my garden the vines were very productive. The tomatoes are sweet and delicious, and they are easy to pick—simply snap a cluster off, just like picking grapes. The clusters make an elegant presentation. Tomatoes can be started indoors in early April. Keep warm, slightly above 22ºC (72ºF) and expect germination within 10 days. When the first true set of leaves have developed, provide a temperature of 15ºC (59ºF) for six to eight weeks and transplant if needed. Apply a liquid organic fertilizer every two weeks. This should take you to the end of May, where in most areas it is safe to transplant them outside. This tomato really needs a lot of support, so provide a large cage.

Butterbean soybean (Glycine max):

Grow your own edamame. I love to serve steamed whole soybeans, dotted with butter and salt. They make an excellent snack or appetizer. This open-pollinated variety is available in certified organic seed and offers high yields of small, sweet and buttery, bright-green pods. There are only three seeds in each pod, perfect for finger food. It has wonderful rich flavour and my plants were extremely prolific. Order your seeds early but plant later. I would recommend sowing directly into the garden, although these are bush beans and can be raised as transplants for short-season gardens. Plant when the soil temperature is really warm, usually the first week of June, otherwise you may be sowing twice. Sow seed 30 cm (1 ft.) apart in rows spaced 60 cm (2 ft.) apart. At the first sign of germination, begin applying liquid seaweed fertilizer every two weeks to provide zinc, which beans love. As this is a bush bean it requires no staking. Pick the pods when they are young and sweet to encourage more.

Red Hot Cherry hot pepper (Capsicum annuum):

This is a hot one with brilliant-red colour, perfect for chili chicken, spicy stir-fries, and summer salsas. The cherry-sized peppers mature from green to red and are popular for pickling and preserving. The plant is compact and ornamental. Start seed in early March; plant extra as usually only half will germinate. Plant in sterile soil 1-cm (1⁄2-in.) deep. Keep soil warm, about 28ºC (82ºF), until germination, which takes eight to 18 days. Then keep the seedlings at a temperature of 20ºC(68ºF). Transplant up as needed. When the plants are five weeks old, start feeding weekly with liquid kelp and allow them to sleep cool for two weeks, about 14ºC (57ºF) night temperature. At seven weeks, keep at a consistent 21ºC (70ºF) for two weeks, or until you can safely transplant out. Plant a few marigolds, around peppers to attract insects and increase pollination.

Purple Peacock pole bean (Phaseolus vulgaris):

A beautiful plant with dark-purple pods and light-purple flowers. This pole bean was a crazy producer and required loads of support. Plant as you would soybeans, although you can tighten up the space to 15 cm (6 in.) apart in rows 30 cm (1 ft.) apart. These beans grow 1.8 to 2.4 m (6 to 8 ft.) high and can be used as an ornamental garden screen.