Spice up your pots with some unusual edibles
by Emma Cooper
“Whatever space you’ve got, it starts with a pot”, the Horticultural Trades Association is telling us this year – and for many gardeners it ends with a pot as well. If you’re a fan of going potty on the patio, weeding on the windowsill or battling bugs on the balcony then here are some more exciting edibles you can grow in containers this year.
Achocha is a climbing plant – perfect for making use of vertical space. It will clamber up virtually anything, putting on a show of big green leaves and filigree tendrils. It is frost-tender, and can be grown in much the same way as climbing beans. Sow seeds indoors now, or outside after the risk of frost has passed (mid-May for most of England). The seedlings won’t take long to spring up, and you’ll need to pot them on before those tendrils start to tangle. This exciting edible actively enjoys an average English summer – in a heat wave or drought you’ll need to pay careful attention to keeping your plants well-watered, or they’ll wilt.
You may initially miss Achocha flowers, as they are small, pale and well-hidden behind the curtain of leaves – the hoverflies won’t, though; they’ll be making a beeline for your balcony! In fact, the attention of insects is often the way you’ll discover your plant is in flower. Baby fruits will swiftly follow – interesting curved, green fruits, with soft spines. One variety is called “Lady’s Slipper” (another is Fat Baby!). Harvest fruits as soon as they reach a reasonable size – young fruits (less than 2.5 cm long) are tender and can be eaten raw. Once they start to mature you’ll find hard, black seeds inside. Remove those and cook the fruit, which can be used in similar ways to green peppers. You may find you have a glut come the autumn, but they also make nice pickles! And those black seeds are easily extracted, dried and saved for next year.
In terms of container size, think about how you grow your tomatoes. An Achocha plant can thrive in a small pot, as long as it is kept fed and watered. If, like me, you prefer a low-effort style of gardening, then a larger pot is preferable.
Source: Achocha seeds often find their way into seed swaps, but are available from The Real Seed Catalogue (http://realseeds.co.uk/). If you’re a member of the Heritage Seed Library, you may have spotted them in their catalogue, too.
If you fancy a change from potatoes this year, keep an eye out for Oca tubers. These wrinkly, brightly-coloured tubers come from a different plant family, and so are at no risk of contracting blight. They can be grown in a very similar way to potatoes, with tubers planted out around Easter. A potato tower is ideal, as Oca yields will be higher if you can earth up your plants (cover them with soil or compost as soon as the foliage breaks through). Unlike potatoes, though, you don’t have to worry about the tubers catching a few rays – they don’t become poisonous with exposure to the sun.
Oca plants are very pretty, forming clumps of clover-like leaves. Stems may be red-tinged, depending on the variety. It’s rare that Oca plants flower – they haven’t really settled into life in the UK yet – but when they do the delicate flowers are bright yellow. They won’t set seed unless you have two different, compatible varieties, so you won’t find seedlings springing up. But you can save some tubers from your own harvest to replant next year. They store easily through the winter, and can be ‘chitted’ on the windowsill (like seed potatoes) in early spring.
Oca plants don’t form tubers until late in the year, so resist the temptation to dig them up until the foliage has been cut down by frost and you’ve waited another couple of weeks. Once you’ve dug up your bounty they can be used in similar ways to potatoes, but are also edible raw. The tubers have a slightly lemony flavour, due to the presence of oxalic acid (like sorrel).
Source: Thompson &Morgan offer Oca tubers, but only one variety. For more colour choices, check out The Real Seed Catalogue. Again, you may find tubers being offered in seed swaps.
Peanuts are a great plant to grow on a windowsill, or a very sheltered spot on the patio, particularly if you have kids. They’re not strictly nuts, being related to beans and peas, but the peanut has a great trick up its sleeve – it plants itself!
Another tender plant, you need to sow your peanut seeds indoors in spring. Once the seedlings come up, you can pot them on into something a bit larger – they need a little bit of space around them to perform well, and enough depth to grow (up to 20 cm is fine). The plants can grow up to 50 cm tall.
With plenty of sunshine, and enough water to keep the compost moist but not water-logged, peanuts will produce pretty yellow flowers that look a lot like pea flowers. But rather than producing a long, green pod, the flowers bend over and plant themselves in the soil. You can expect your harvest in the autumn – wait until the plants die back before delving into the soil to find your buried treasure! If you want to, you can save some unshelled nuts to plant next year.
Source: You can buy peanut seeds from Franchi Seeds of Italy 1783 (http://www.seedsofitaly.com/), but you can also plant the ones you find in pet and health food shops. The key is to buy monkey nuts, still in their shells, and only shell out the peanuts inside when you’re ready to plant them.
Onions are endlessly useful in the kitchen, but in a small space it’s hard to grow big bulbs – you’re better off growing spring onions, or even a clump of chives to get that oniony flavour. But if you’d like to have a go at something a little bit different, that will be happy in a pot, then delve into the world of perennial onions.
Welsh onions are ridiculously easy to grow, unfussy about site,soil and size of pot. Grow them from seed, or plant, and they’ll send up fresh green leaves in all but the harshest of winter weather. The only time of year you’ll have problems harvesting them is in early summer, when they produce beautiful white flower heads that attract bees by the ton!
Welsh onion leaves are tall (about 30 cm) and hollow, a bit like a giant chive, with a similarly onion flavour. Snip them off with scissors whenever needed, and they will keep growing. In the autumn you can divide your clump. Welsh onions form small bulbs, and you can separate some off to use in cooking, whilst replanting a couple to start again next year.
If you have a little more space, you can try and track down some bulbils (tiny bulbs, used for sowing) for walking onions. Very similar in many respects to Welsh onions, and grown in the same way, they produce heads of bulbils rather than flowers. You can harvest the bulbils to eat (although they are fiddly to peel) or save to replant. But if you let the heads droop over, they will plant themselves and start a new clump – and the plant is said to ‘walk’.
Source: Welsh onion seeds are widely available in catalogues, and you can often find plants in the herb section of the garden centre.
If you’re on Twitter then you can show off your plants with the #plantapot tag. Or share your photos on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/itstartswithapot.
Emma Cooper is the author of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, a new ebook about unusual edible plants and the people who grow them. This is a stop on Emma’s virtual book tour, and the book will be available from 1st May 2014.