Eight crops that are easy to grow, hard to buy

The petals are edible, add a vibrant orange splash to any salad, and have a hint of tangerine flavour.

When you’re growing in a small space, you want everything you grow to be special in some way. It might be beautiful, delicious, attractive to wildlife, or highly productive (ideally several of these!). I also like to grow a few things that are either impossible or very hard to find in the shops. You get to add new flavours to your cooking – and its fun to share something unusual you’ve grown yourself with friends – like a sorrel omelette, a tomatillo salsa, or a snack of Chilean guavas.

The range and choice available to the home grower is huge and rapidly growing. Here are eight I’ve found to be particularly well suited to container growing.

1. Sorrel

It’s a mystery to me why sorrel leaves are not more widely available in the shops.  I don’t recall ever seeing them for sale, anywhere. It tastes a little like spinach, but with an unmistakable and strong lemon tang to it. It’s delicious chopped up and added (in moderation) to a green salad. It makes a superb combination with eggs, like in an omelette. And it forms a classic combination with salmon.

Another joy of sorrel is that it is easy to grow in a container. It only needs three to four hours sun a day (great for a shady backyard or balcony). It will produce leaves all year round – best in autumn and spring. Harvest by picking off the  outer leaves and leaving the inner ones to regrow. It’s also a perennial, which means that one plant will last several years.

Two common varieties of sorrel are French sorrel (looks like spinach) and buckler leaf sorrel, which has pretty heart shaped leaves.

This is the heart shaped variety, buckler leaf sorrel. This is growing in the ground - it doesn't usually grow so tall in a container.

This is the heart shaped variety, buckler leaf sorrel. This is growing in the ground – it doesn’t usually grow so tall in a container.

2. Lemon verbena

Lemon verbena also has a lemon flavour, but a wonderfully intense and aromatic one, completely different from sorrel. You use it, like bay leaves, to add flavour. You only need two or three leaves to make a superb herbal tea. Or it is excellent for flavouring cakes and fruit puddings. Author, Mark Diacono recommends making a fruit syrup out of it – add a handful of leaves to equal quantities of sugar and water and warm to infuse. I can’t wait to try this. It also makes a vibrant sorbet, a perfect summer desert.

Lemon verbena: a fabulous herb, not as widely grown as it should be.

Lemon verbena: a fabulous herb for small spaces.

Lemon verbena does best in full sun. It will die back over winter and in cold areas it is advisable to protect it over winter with a fleece. It will then grow back in the spring – sometimes surprisingly late – the twigs can look unpromisingly lifeless but don’t give up on them until late May / June.

You only need a few leaves to make a delicious lemon verbena tea.

You only need a few leaves to make a delicious lemon verbena tea.

3. Cucumbers

OK, you can buy cucumbers in the shop. But the regimented, smooth and flavourless objects stacked on supermarket shelves are an entirely different beast from those you grow yourself. Home grown, they are often spiny, chubby little things. Cut them open to reveal a wonderful, almost perfumed smell. The taste is delicious and perfect for summer meals. If you’ve never tried a homegrown cucumber, I urge you to give it a go.

The variety Marketmore is a good one for containers. It’s a good climber so makes good use of a small space. The smallest container I’d use is 10 litres – or two plants in a 20 litre container. It needs at least half a day of sun. Feed occasionally with tomato feed when it starts fruiting.

The Marketmore cucumber looks quite different to supermarket cucumber - and tastes it, too!

The Marketmore cucumber looks quite different to supermarket cucumber – and tastes so much better.

4. Tomatillos

Tomatillos are related to tomatoes, but with a slightly sharper taster and a firmer texture. They make a delicious salsa.

The plants grow big and bushy in containers (be aware!) and, if happy, will be extremely productive. They need lots of sun (more than half a day), and I’d use at least a fifteen or twenty litre pot for each plant, and feed regularly with tomato feed while fruiting. You also need to grow two plants or more as they need to cross pollinate (I nearly forgot that this year!).

Tomatillos are a productive container crop, perfect to make your own salsas in summer.

Tomatillos are a productive container crop, perfect to make your own salsas in summer.

5. Fat baby achocha

Like tomatillos, this is another South American crop. It’s easy to grow (as long as you have at least half a day’s sun), climbs vigorously, and fruits productively. Most fun of all, it produces extraordinary, alien like fruit, that are a great talking point. Kids find them hilarious.

In the kitchen the fruits taste like a cross between peppers, cucumber and lemons. They are good in a salsa or lightly fried like peppers in tomato sauce. However, you should know that the taste is not universally acclaimed! Having said that, I like them (so does my wife) – and it’s a great fun crop to grow so I think they are well worth a bash.

The exotic looking but very easy to grow Fat Baby Achocha.

The exotic looking but easy (and fun) to grow Fat Baby Achocha.

6. Chilean Guavas

This pretty shrub produces fruits that taste like peppery strawberries. Not only is it reputed to be Queen Victoria’s favourite fruit, it’s also Paul at Edulis Nursery’s  favourite. Paul grows many different fruits he collects himself from all over the world – so he has lots to compare it with (mind you, I’m sure Queen Victoria tried a few, too).

The berries are so delicious that you’ll probably find that you (and family and friends) find it hard to resist snacking on them whenever they are in reach. It’s likely that few berries will get as far as the kitchen.

It does well in a container (start baby plants in five litre containers, moving up to a final pot size of fifteen litres after three years or so), and needs about five – six hours sun (around half a day). It doesn’t like strong winds so is not the best choice for windy balconies. It’s hardy down to about -5 or -10 degrees – so will be fine outside in winter in warmer cities like London, but will need protection in cooler places (I put mine in a home made cold frame). There is also a variegated version (‘Flambeau‘) which Paul says is hardier – so the best choice for cooler places.

Chilean Guava - this one was grown by Paul Barney at Edulis Nursery, UK

Chilean Guava – this one was grown by Paul Barney at Edulis Nursery, UK

 

7. Red Russian Kale

This variety of kale makes a super container crop for two reasons. It’s red stem and frilly leaves make it one of the most attractive kales. And, unlike most other kales, the stem doesn’t go tough but remains tender – to the point where even large leaves can be chopped and added raw to salads. Or try it lightly steamed for a couple of minutes in a drop of water and sesame oil (good tip from Raymond Blanc!). Delicious – as well as being one of the most nutritious crops you can grow.

A good time to sow kale is in summer (July or August in the UK). If you harvest it sparingly (pick the outer leaves) you’ll get leaves throughout the later autumn, winter and spring. It only needs three to fours sun a day to grow well.

Red Russian Kale: tender to eat, pretty and tasty.

Red Russian Kale: tender and tasty to eat, pretty and nutritious.

8. Edible flowers

Edible flowers can transform the presentation of almost any dish. They’re almost impossible to buy so are brilliant to grow yourself – and don’t need much space. The nasturtium, with its delicious spicy flowers, and edible leaves must be number one. Violas (for winter flowers) and pot marigolds are up there, too.

nasturtiums

Nasturtiums: the number one edible flower!

Of course growing edible flowers will brighten your container garden, too. As well as eating them, I alway pick a few each year to display in a jam jar vase. They look much nicer than most flowers you can buy, in my humble opinion.

And don’t forget to eat some of your courgette / zucchini / squash flowers. In the UK chefs have to pay around £2 for each flower – so they are valuable as well as being delicious!

 

Courgette flowers - its rare to see these for sale, and if you do they are very pricey.

Courgette flowers – its rare to see these for sale, and if you do they are very pricey.

 

Your turn

Of course there are many other wonderful crops you can grow that are hard to find in the shops. I’d love to hear what your favourites are in the comments below.

40 comments… add one

  • We have a large area outside our veggie patch where we planted butternut and gem squash. They went mad along with my grandson’s Halloween pumpkins. Definitely couldn’t have grown these in the 1970s in Britain. In fact butternut wasn’t even available in the shops until after 2000 or thereabouts. Global warming? Didn’t seem to be particularly hot.

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    • Hate to contradict you Poppy, but although squash were rare in shops back then, unless you lived in an area with a big West Indian population, the seeds were easy enough to get. I remember my mum growing a whole range of squash over our fence in Leeds in the very early 50s. Not butternut, because that was only released for trialling in the US by the breeder in the late 40s and didn’t reach the UK until T&M put it in their catalogue about 1 960, but plenty of other varieties, including some of the gem types. If you look at Victorian seed catalogues you’ll see lots of types. We used to sow them either on the compost heap or on ridges under two pound jam jars in late May. Then grew them on under glass cloches which were taken off after Whitsuntide. Same growing method for sweet corn, runner beans and pole beans back then. (Though the bottom of the runner bean trench was always lined with newspaper and back filled with raw compost materials for extra moisture, heat and nutrients)

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      • Very interesting Kathryn thanks for sharing your knowledge. Sowing them under large jars is a great idea as they hate cold and wind – so a good one for us to copy today (although most of us would probably use large plastic bottles now!).

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        • Large plastic bottle are very useful when starting plants on a balcony in my experience (not that I have a balcony but I’ve helped many who do have one). Pushed well down into the compost so they don’t blow away they can shelter the plant until it and its neighbours have grown enough to provide some mutual protection from the wind that is the curse of many balcony gardens.

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          • Yes indeed, Kathryn, bottles are extremely handy on balconies, particularly to protect from cold and wind early in the season. The mutual protection is a good point – a benefit of growing plants together.

  • Lovage is extremely easy to grow and such a useful herb – lovely chopped up in egg sandwiches and in potato salad. It does grow very tall though – up to 6 foot and has very long tap roots – but if you have space, well worth it.

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    • I’m wondering if Lovage can be used as a microgreen…

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      • Hi Sean, interesting question. I’ve not tried it as a microgreen. In theory, almost anything can be used as a microgreen. How practical it is to grow lovage as a microgreen I’m not sure. It is quite slow to germinate for a start. If you have some seeds, it’s worth a try. Anyone else tried it?

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        • Lovage germinates quickly if you sow fresh seed, so if you have it growing already and let it flower and set seed it should be possible to use it as a micro green using the fresh seed. But given how much more concentrated flavour is in microgreens lovage might be a bit OTT

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          • Many thanks for the info.

        • Many thanks, Mark, I’ll give it a go and let you know how I got on. Cheers, Sean

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  • Since I read rhubarb flowers are edible each spring it is my vegie caviar. It is deliciously more subtle than rhubarb stems. But I do know rhubarb leaves are poisoning.

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  • Edible Flowers & leaves of course, especially microgreens.

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  • I grow different varieties of chard – so easy to grow, and very tasty! It’s in the ground rather than containers. Rainbow Chard looks lovely mixed in with plants.

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  • It is not rare to see courgettes flowers here in the South of France. They are used to make a fritter, and are wonderful, you also see them as ready made fritters, but the best are those you make yourself and eaten fresh and warm, sprinkled with icing sugar.

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    • You’re making me feel hungry, Rachel – sounds delicious.

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      • Never had sweet courgette fritters. First flowers are nearly open here. Yum. Mark – you really started something with this post

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  • I recently have grown Fennel wow they are huge and so tasty i loved them from the minute they were ready to eat and simple to grow xx

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    • Yes, super and delicious crop, Pat, that looks so pretty in a container. And home grown they have a vibrancy of taste that is so superior to any you buy.

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  • Just a word of warning about sorrel. It’s not advisable to eat during pregnancy – especially early stages as it can cause miscarriages.

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    • Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Georgina.

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      • Another thing about sorrel: if you are prone to kidney stones, don’t eat it, because it is very high in oxalic acid, a major component of the most common type of kidney stone. That’s what that sour bite is. Same in rhubarb.

        It’s a shame, too, because it is incredibly easy to grow and, as you say delicious in salads.

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  • Hi Mark
    Been growing cucumbers outside here in Dublin for the last few years , the yield was’nt great but they are worth it ,a a lot easier to grow than tomatoes .
    Conor

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    • Hi Conor – what variety are you growing. I know a few Dublin balconies where people are getting good yields and I get decent ones out of doors even in a frost pocket. I grow Marketmore and a half length hybrid called Hana that you can buy as a plant from Homebase. One plant of that one gave us a cucumber every day from July to October last year. This year I’m trailing half a dozen varieties with one plant in a polytunnel and one in a container out of doors to see how they compare. Except that I can’t put anything outside until we stop having night frosts and downpours on alternate days

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      • Wow, Kathryn, one cucumber every day off one plant is an amazing result – was that off a container? Thanks for sharing your experience.

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    • Great stuff, Conor – hope your say Kathryn’s handy tips, too.

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      • This year I decided to try Poona Keera from Real Seeds – a very productive small cucumber. Two plants that were out in the polytunnel were very badly damaged by frost but I’d given three more to a friend in Dublin. They were sown second week in February on the windowsill and potted up in 5 litre pots. They sat on her balcony through the frost and a couple of leaves were pretty badly damaged but she cut her first four inch cucumber yesterday and more are coming. Meanwhile I dug up the two damaged ones and brought them back indoors. Leaves are growing back and they are coming back into flower only ten days after I thought I was probably wasting my time. They are going back to the polytunnel tomorrow. Even in the tunnel I grow most of my veg in one size or another of tubs made from scaffolding planks two deep, because our garden floods regularly (river). So I have raised beds everything from about two foot square to nine foot square with landscape fabric under them to slow down the rushes and horsetail that tries to come up through them. Great ideas on the site Mark

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  • I use sorrel mainly to add zip to almost any soup and chopped up fine to stir into the raw eggs for an omelette

    Looking forward to trying achocha, tomatillos and guavas – thanks for the new ideas

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  • I love Kohlrabi and Fennel; both relatively easy to grow but hard to find in the supermarket

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  • Thanks Mark, for these wonderful ideas!
    Hope I can find some of these in our garden center in Antwerp, so that we can try them out.
    warm regards,
    Gerda

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  • Will definitely try out some of these in my pot garden. Thank you for the ideas.

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  • I see a lot of great suggestions. Thanks!

    I’m trying out courgettes on my balcony, so I will definitely remember to take some flowers! I remember courgettes as very giving, and there is a limit to how many courgettes one person can eat. I’ve got some Calendula(?) I’m going to try. I hear they’re edible too – and quite pretty.

    Chilean Guavas an Red Russian Kale will be put on my list of things I’ll try to grow.

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    • Hi Marie, yes the petals of calendula are edible – lovely to add to salads. Also good for attracting beneficial insects like hover flies. Hope you enjoy the courgette flowers, happy growing, mark.

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    • Calendulas also make great body oil…pick the flowers cover with olive oil in a glass jar and There u go. Excellent for the skin.

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  • Vigorously is the word with Achocha. We use the growing tips and tendrils in stir fries and salads. Which means you can keep it pruned and under control and it won’t take over the world after all – one year it managed to fill a third of my polytunnel before I hacked it back. The other thing you need to know is that you need two plants if you are going to save seeds, otherwise you’ll get seeds but won’t find out until too late that they aren’t viable. Very irritating when that happens.

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    • Thank you Kathryn, two very useful things that I didn’t know about Achocha. The seeds I’ve saved have always germinated, luckily I have always grown two plants, but more by luck than design. I didn’t know the leaves were edible but it makes sense as squash leaves are. I look forward to trying them!

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  • I am currently growing veggies for the first time. I got some large builders buckets, and have put in the following: Elephant garlic, aubergine (don’t hold out much hope), leeks, peas, beetroot. I have cauliflowers, kohlrabi (my favourite veg but impossible to find in the shop) dwarf beans and turnips to plant and I am really enjoying myself. Thanks for the inspiration.

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    • Sounds a super first effort Suzanne, very good luck with it. I recently planted some elephant garlic for the first time, too.

      Reply

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