Plain Jane, Plain Ugly

THE REAL DIRT

June 05, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Most of them won't win any beauty contests. Some look like aliens from "Star Wars." Others are as slimy as garden slugs.

Meet the wallflowers of the vegetable world, odd-looking plants and roots that will never grace the covers of gardening magazines. Some are so loathsome they've gone underground.

Nonetheless, these vegetables survive, thanks to the cadre of gardeners who grow them.

Tomatoes, peppers and zucchini, they're not. But to their loyal followers, the also-rans are as popular as the backyard favorites. Some are more rugged, too. Half of the crops named below will survive a killing frost.

You all know the beauties; now meet the beasts:

* Brussels sprouts. This odd-looking plant resembles a miniature palm tree, with tiny growths, called sprouts, attached to the stalk. Snap off the ripe sprouts in late fall and serve them steamed, with butter if you like. Like its cousin broccoli, brussels sprouts are thought to ward off cancer.

* Celeriac. The warty, hairy, knoblike bulb is easily the world's most grotesque veggie. But beauty is only skin-deep: Peel celeriac for a great celery substitute in soups, salads and casseroles. It's easier to grow than celery, a finicky plant that frustrates home gardeners. Celeriac thrives in heavy, moist soils and can be planted now for fall harvest.

* Eggplant. Many gardeners are put off by this temperamental plant, one of the fussiest around. Eggplant produces bland, pear-shaped, frumpy fruits on prickly gray-green plants that seem to be covered with soot. Eggplant pouts in cool summers and may not produce fruit at all. Fanatics pamper their plants tirelessly. I'm not sure why.

* Jerusalem artichoke. The plant is neither from the Middle East, nor is it an artichoke. It's actually a North American sunflower whose hideous-looking tubers are harvested for their crisp, nutlike taste. Jerusalem artichokes are carefree perennials that grow to heights of 8 feet and will quickly take over a garden unless checked. Garden centers supply tubers for planting.

* Kohlrabi. Another bizarre-looking vegetable, this member of the cabbage family resembles "My Favorite Martian," with a dozen antennae protruding from its noggin. Harvest the swollen stem, which grows just above the soil, when it measures 2 to 3 inches across. Peeled and sliced, kohlrabi looks and tastes like water chestnuts. Sow seeds of this cool-weather crop in spring or early fall.

* Okra. It's no fun to harvest the slim, 3-inch pods of this heat-loving plant. Okra has a fuzzy, sticky skin and slimy innards. Some gardeners question its productivity in Northern climates. But okra is worth the gamble. Breaded and fried, there's nothing better. Sow seeds in early June. Plants grow slowly at first, but when pods appear, harvest them daily.

* Parsnip. Does anyone else raise this homely looking root, shaped like a carrot but white as a ghost? Appearance aside, parsnips are a hardy, trouble-free crop, a boon to hungry gardeners who like to gather them in winter when all else is dead. Parsnips embrace the big chill, becoming tastier in cold weather. Seeds sown now will germinate in about three weeks.

* Rutabaga. This plant needs a new moniker. Who wants to grow a vegetable whose name sounds like a mobile home? The rutabaga is grown for its dowdy yellow root, which is bigger and sweeter than that of its ancestor, the turnip. Rutabaga seeds may be sown in good, loose soil from spring to early summer. A phosphorus-rich fertilizer will benefit the roots.

* Salsify. Dipped in egg and flour and fried, the slender, 8-inch white root tastes like an oyster. Hence its nickname, oyster plant. Salsify matures in late fall, four months after sowing. Mark planting rows carefully: The young foliage is easily mistaken for lawn grass or weeds. Insects are also fooled, because salsify is bug-free.

* Turnip. Is there a more versatile veggie around? Turnips are sown spring and fall, and harvested for both their greens and roots. Yet this dirt-caked white blob, which originated in Russia, has never shed its image as peasant food or livestock fodder. Pity. Water plants frequently, and dust with wood ashes and Rotenone to discourage insects. Harvest when turnip roots are 2 inches in diameter.

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