When neighbors look at my vegetable garden, they are often at a loss for words. Sometimes they just come out with it and ask, “What the heck are you growing?” I have to admit, I have some pretty unusual edibles. My strange fruit and perennial greens are low-fuss, enthusiastic growers that love living in Marin. They may look different, but they produce loads of food.
Whether you are growing the usual suspects or trying out some of these unusual edibles, they will do best in healthy soil. What is the secret to healthy soil? It’s really simple: add two to three inches of organic material, such as manure or compost, and then let the decaying organisms in soil do the work. These lovely soil dwellers consume the organic debris you have added and leave behind humus, a mixture of gums, starches and the plant parts that aren’t easily decomposed. Humus is garden gold since it can hold the equivalent of 80 to 90 percent of its weight in water, provides plant nutrients and its light fluffy structure allows air to circulate.
The most rambunctious grower in my garden is the ground-cherry, sometimes called a cape gooseberry, husk cherry or poha, or if you want to get Latin about it, Physalis peruviana.
While it produces fruit within 80 days of planting, it will keep going year-round. Closely related to the tomato and tomatillo, the fruit grows in a husk that makes the plant look like it is covered with a Chinese lantern. Fruit ripens on the vine and then falls to the ground, which explains the common name. The fruit is the size of a marble and has a sweet, sour, tropical taste. This plant is happy in Marin and will take a lot of real estate so I planted it with my pattypan squash. I had lots of food growing in the same shared space. What could be better? How about the fact that it is drought-tolerant and will grow in full sun or part shade?
Staking skills come in handy growing the purple collard tree; otherwise, this is one easy plant to grow. Use an 8-foot stake and drive it in about 2 feet. Be sure to allow at least 2 inches between the stake and the root system. I like to use something soft and flexible for tying the plant, so I make a loose figure eight with some heavy twine at 12 inches and add another tie 18 inches above the original tie and repeat. The twist in twine keeps the stem from direct contact with the stake, so don’t tie the stem too tight. You’ll end up with a funny-looking Seuss-like tree that produces greens year-round, or maybe I should say “purples.” Related to kale, the leaves have a sweet nutty taste and can be eaten raw or cooked. Did I mention it can grow in sun or part shade, and is also drought-tolerant?
Now that my purple collard tree has grown up, I use the area beneath for my newest unusual edible: longevity spinach. Gynura procumbens is not in the spinach family but is related to daisies. This low-maintenance super plant isn’t easy to find, so I ordered mine online. This super productive sprawler does well in sun or shade, and is drought-tolerant. Edible raw or cooked, it produces greens year-round. There are tons of studies on the health benefits of this plant so check them out and you will see where the longevity comes from in its name.For more information on great edible varieties for Marin, check out great gardening information at marinmg.ucanr.edu.