New Plants for Your Backyard Vegetable Garden

Perk up your backyard vegetable garden by swapping old standards for new veggies!

This might sound extreme, but I’m just gonna say it. There is life after tomatoes.

Stay with me now – most gardeners and chefs would agree that few things rival the anticipation of slicing into the sweet, taut flesh of your first homegrown tomato. But if you’re itching to be a little adventurous, we have some great picks to turn your gardening neighbors green with envy – all while making you a hero in the kitchen. This year, in addition to the recurrent tomatoes and cucumbers in your backyard vegetable garden, check out a collection of unsung yet wildly delicious vegetables. Turning the ordinary into -extraordinary, these tasty alternatives are not your average garden vegetables.

Instead of tomatoes…grow tomatillos. Say adios to ordinary and get ready to be known as the neighbor who makes the best salsa verde on the block. Growing tomatillos, a zesty staple in Mexican cuisine, is a simple way to stock your kitchen for a mighty tasty fiesta. These tangy-tasting members of the nightshade family grow inside a papery, husklike shell, resembling a Chinese lantern bloom. When they’re ready for the party, the green shells turn brown and split open, yielding a green to yellow fruit. Like tomatoes, tomatillo plants can quickly reach 3 feet tall, so stake them young. You’ll need two or more plants for the blooms to be pollinated and fruit to be produced, and since the tiny yellow flowers attract bees, you’ll have a few busy helpers to fertilize the flowers.

Instead of cucumbers…grow cucamelons. The adorable gems dubbed cucamelons (Melothria scabra) resemble tiny dollhouse-sized watermelons. More properly known as Mexican sour gherkin, this newly rediscovered heirloom will reward you with crisp cucumber flavor accompanied by a zingy bite. Some people describe it as having a pickled flavor, making it a fun addition to sandwiches and salads. Cucamelons grow much like cucumbers, but they’re more tolerant of cool weather. To discourage pests
and provide support, install a cage or trellis roughly 6 inches from the plants.

Instead of celery…grow celeriac. It’s been called the ugly duckling of the vegetable world and is perhaps the most underappreciated vegetable in all the land. But what this hearty root lacks in looks, it makes up for in versatility and taste. With a distinct celerylike flavor and interior ivory flesh, the easy-to-grow orb-shaped root can be peeled and chopped into cubes for use in soups and stews. Boiled and mashed, celeriac is a satisfying, nonstarchy alternative to mashed potatoes. It won’t turn into a swan, but check out the Brilliant variety for its smooth skin and white flesh.

Instead of cabbage…grow bok choy.  Asian stir-fries and salads just aren’t the same without the addition of this delicate Chinese cabbage. The vegetable is grown from seed in spring and fall for its tender leaves and crunchy stalks. While Asian vegetables grow faster than Western types, bolting is a common problem—plants prematurely produce flowering stems before they’re harvested (though the birds won’t mind). This can hurt the edible portion of the plant, but luckily, bok choy can be grown as a cut-and-come-again crop. Varieties such as Joi Choi are more bolt-resistant than others.

Backyard Vegetable GardenTomatillo in a bowl - Physalis philadelphica
Tomatillo in a bowl – Physalis philadelphica Grow tomatillos in your backyard vegetable garden for a spicy treat.

Instead of green beans…grow soybeans.  A nutritional powerhouse, this nutty-flavored legume yields nearly 15 grams of protein per half-cup, making it a favorite among vegetarian chefs. Plants grow about 2½ feet tall and have a rich color. They’re ready to harvest when the beans inside the pods are thick and plump.  If you’re really big on soybeans, the Midori Giant variety claims to be the biggest soybean available to home gardeners, yielding two to three buttery 1¼-inch seeds per pod. A word of caution for eager tasters: Soybeans are potentially toxic when eaten raw, so be sure to boil or steam them before serving.

Instead of spinach…grow beets. Beets instead of spinach? Yes! Not only can you add a burst of color to your dinner plate with these nutrient-rich and deep-shaded roots, you can saute the leaves or toss them in salads as a delicious substitute for spinach. Roasted, boiled or pickled, these earthy-flavored roots are easy to grow in a backyard vegetable garden and come in an assortment of colors. When sliced, varieties like Chioggia show off red and white rings that resemble a target.

Instead of potatoes…grow sweet potatoes. Potatoes are perhaps the world’s most popular vegetable (330 million tons are produced globally every year) and are a common sight in kitchen gardens. But if you’re up for a new challenge, the rewards will be…well, sweet.  A little tricky to grow, sweet potatoes need a long frost-free period and lots of sunshine.  When bought from mail-order suppliers, sweet potatoes arrive as slips—small unrooted cuttings from tubers that have sprouted. Upon arrival, place them in a jar of water to perk them up, and be sure the last frost has passed before planting outdoors. By late fall, you can kick back with your first batch of homegrown sweet potato fries.

Instead of onions…grow shallots. Meet every cook’s best friend. While similar to onions in the way they grow, shallots differ in that a single set will produce more than 10 mildly sweet and subtle garlicky bulbs in just a few short months. Considering the surprisingly high price for shallots in supermarkets, the value for your money can’t be beat—making them a gardener’s best friend, too. Two varieties that chefs prefer for making vinaigrettes and bringing out the flavor of meat and seafood entrees are French Red and French Demi-Long.

Heather Ray
Heather Ray is a registered dietitian and an award-winning journalist and editor currently residing in Des Moines, Iowa. She earned a master of science degree in nutrition and dietetics. In her leisure time, she enjoys baking, archery, kayaking, and hiking—hoping to someday trek all 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail.