Every summer I try to grow something unpredictable in my garden, and sometimes I am surprised by a strange plant popping up in an unexpected place.
This year, I planted a cardoon in the vegetable garden. The tiny seedling was given to me by a friend, and I put it in a corner with the pepper plants and forgot about it for a while. As the peppers grew, so did the cardoon - and how!
By early July, the large jagged leaves measured 48 inches each, taking up a space of eight feet in diameter, and the poor peppers were languishing in the shade. It was too late to transplant, so the cardoon had to go. A great addition to the compost pile.
Then I had a call from the kind donor, who told me it is now time to tie the leaves up to the stem so the usable part of the plant would blanch ready for use. Too late.
I looked up cardoons in a reference book and found they are similar to an artichoke, but grown for the young leafstalks that can be blanched like celery and eaten in salads and soups. Popular in Italy, the stalks need to be cooked for an hour and a half and served with oil and vinegar or topped with a cream sauce.
Next year, I will try again, with a spot dedicated to the cardoon.
Another interesting plant is fennel. This one is really a mystery, as it appeared in an area by the back door beside the water pot where my four goldfish have their summer home. There are water lilies and water lettuce in the pot, coneflowers, sedum and blackeyed Susans around it, and a big stalk of fennel in the midst.
I have no idea where it came from as I have never grown it on purpose, and in fact, I had to look it up to be sure what it really was.
Fennel also is known as finnochio, and the stem, leaves, bulb and seeds can all be eaten. It has a thick base of overlapping stems that can be braised and is particularly good with fish. I am going to let it grow a bit more, although it already is about 18 inches high, and the next time I buy some flounder or my favorite trout, I will treat myself to an unusual vegetable accompaniment.
Then there are a few plants that will not grow for me.
I have sown ground cherry seeds in the basement for three years now, without any of the seedlings surviving. A few germinate, but they do not live long enough to go outside. Which is strange, because it is an old-fashioned plant that spreads around once it takes hold.
I keep persevering because it was a favorite of my sister-in-law's, and she always served a ground cherry pie at Thanksgiving dinner. While she was in a nursing home for three years before she died last year, she said she would like a piece of ground cherry pie. I promised to grow some and bake a pie for her, but was never able to do so. Now I just have to keep trying to succeed.
Ground cherry also is known as strawberry tomato or husk tomato, and belongs to the genus physalis. I am told they grow wild in some areas, and I wish I could find the secret. The fruits are small and golden, and are encased in papery husks.
Researching them, I have found some recipes for pies and jams, and also the useful hint to provide bottom heat to the seedlings and not to transplant until the soil is warm. So I will try once more in the spring.
These unusual plants are fun to grow, and lend some adventure to the routine, but much appreciated, tomatoes, peppers and beans.
Janet Del Turco is a local gardener and a graduate of the Ohio State University Master Gardener program.
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