It's that time of year again: seed catalogs are arriving in the mail and there are way too many choices.
Here are five great vegetables that I have found easy and reliable to grow from seed. And believe me, if I can grow them (in the mountains of western North Carolina) you can grow them. In addition to their culinary charms they all add drama to the edible landscape.
Perfectly beautiful in its rough way, globe artichoke is a garden delicacy well worth the extra care it may require in some climates. Originally a Mediterranean plant growing prolifically as a perennial, the artichoke can do well in more severe North American zones provided it gets enough warmth and water through a long growing season. Globe artichokes are called “tender perennials” because they sometimes overwinter and produce their chokes for three or four years, but just as often must be treated as annuals or biennials and started quite early from seed.
Related to the common thistle, artichoke has bold silver-blue foliage that grows two or three feet high. The developing flower bulbs are the edible part, and must be harvested while still tightly closed.
Artichokes can be boiled until tender, up to 45 minutes, and the pulpy lower leaves dipped in melted butter for eating; the soft heart lies within. Artichokes can also be fried, stuffed, or braised with baby peas and herbs. When over-abundant they can be blanched and frozen for future use.
TIP: Purple artichokes look great in the catalog but the heads can be small, tough, and sticky, and the foliage prickly. Keep to green globe artichokes.
Bronze fennel is a four-season garden goddess: light and lacy in spring, if left to maturity this hardy perennial fills out and grows to shoulder height, and by late summer produces a cloud of dusty yellow flowers that look magnificent against the purple-brown foliage. Those flowers act as magnets to bees and wasps, and by fall the seed heads are packed with anise-flavored seeds. Harvested, dried, and saved over the winter, fennel seeds flavor homemade sausage and baked goods.
The fronds of bronze fennel are used like those of Florence (green) fennel, but are tougher and should be cut very small unless used as a garnish. Like Florence fennel, fronds of bronze fennel can be used to stuff baked fish, and in addition, bunches of deep fried bronze fennel make an unusual side dish. Bronze fennel does not have the bulbous outer leaves of Florence fennel.
After a few years a bronze fennel plant may lose vigor or grow so bushy that it becomes a pest in the flower bed. Dig the whole plant, divide the roots, and replant elsewhere.
TIP: Don't let bronze fennel go to seed all over the garden. Remove all seed heads before they drop their load.
Kohlrabi, Purple Vienna
What in the world is it? One observer calls it “a turnip growing on a cabbage root,” and indeed the crisp and delicious kohlrabi is a member of the cabbage family (“kohlrabi” is the German word for turnip, though). But where cabbage heart can be bitter – and turnip tough – the kohlrabi, when nurtured for fast growth, comes out sweet and juicy when sliced raw, and equally mild when cooked and mashed.
The bulbous knob on kohlrabi’s stem is the edible part. Peel it if the knob is large. Ideally, though, the bulbs are picked when still only a few inches in diameter; a special “giant” cultivar does resist the tendency toward toughness even when grown big.
Kohlrabi is generally a cool weather crop, although it can tolerate surprising heat. To grow kohlrabi, aim for the fastest spring or fall growth possible by supplying lots of water and having the soil well worked; this practice guards against toughness. Green kohlrabi varieties exist, but the foliage of the purple kohlrabi is so attractive that it can grow in flower beds to provide robust color down low.
TIP: Keep the ground around kohlrabi well weeded so you can see the developing bulbs.
Leek never forms a bulb but stays true to its elegant up-and-down habit, yet it is easily recognizable as a member of the onion family. Leeks are the sweetest onion, and they create culinary magic with their interplay of natural sugars and a smooth thickening quality. Thus, leeks add flavor and panache to soups, stews, and winter casseroles.
In the grocery store, leeks can be expensive, and these superstore behemoths have tough stalks with a lot of waste. Grown in the home garden, leeks are star performers. They germinate reliably, and once in the ground as skinny seedlings continue to put on weight no matter what the degree of neglect: drought, flood, or burning heat. What’s more, they actually plump up and grow tender and sweet in the winter, and their more modest size means less waste in cleaning.
To grow leeks, start with seed and sow thickly outside for later, more widely spaced, transplanting, or begin them in peat pots individually. Leeks have creased leaves and serene blue-grey coloration that looks handsome in snow. They may take almost a year to mature
TIP: For the seeds of a winter hardy heirloom leek, see Comstock Garden Seeds, http://comstockferre.com/leek/extra-large-carentan.html
Slow and steady makes for good cabbage. Heading cabbages need a long, moist, and generally cool growing season without spikes in temperature or fertilizer. Gardeners in northern or high-altitude regions will get the best results, especially if they start cabbage seeds indoors and transplant in early spring. Fortunately, cabbages can take some frost, and even sweeten up with a little snow or ice.
The Savoy cabbage, with its deeply crinkled leaves, is considered one of the tastiest varieties: mild, light-textured, and tender. It can be used for any standard cabbage recipe -- sautéed, au gratin, slaw, sauerkraut -- but works less well than regular green head cabbage for stuffed cabbage rolls. An ancient food source, cabbage is high in dietary fiber and has loads of vitamins A and C, and plenty of minerals and trace elements.
In a decorative garden, mature heads of Savoy cabbage are sensational as foundation plants against contrasting greenery nearby. Lucky is the gardener with lots of wasps, as those insects will devour bothersome cabbage worms.
TIP: To get a fast start on the long growing season, look for a flat of cabbage starts at any garden center in early spring.
Nan K. Chase is the author of Eat Your Yard!Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape. She tends her vegetables in Asheville, N.C., and speaks to garden groups around the country.