By this time of year most gardeners have planned and re-planned (and, possibly re-re-planned) their vegetable gardens for the season. Every square foot has been designated for your vegetables of choice. However, if, like me, you find yourself with a little corner here or a long narrow space there with nothing yet designated for it, let me make two recommendations. These are two vegetables you have probably heard of, maybe even seen in the stores or produce stands, but may not yet have grown or used: kohlrabi and leeks. They are perfect for those exact spots and it’s not too late to add them to your plan for this year.
Let’s start with kohlrabi. The word kohlrabi roughly translates to “cabbage turnip,” unsurprising because that’s kind of what it looks like. You may have seen it on the shelf, looking like a green or purple dimpled ball, about the size of a softball. In the garden, that ball forms above ground and each dimple is the location of a leaf stalk that spouts out of it, giving it a kind of retro sputnik look. It’s a member of the brassica family, like cabbage and broccoli, a cool weather crop that matures pretty quickly, about 55 days, suitable for early spring, fall, or both. In the garden, kohlrabi takes up little space (so that small corner is perfect,) and require no special care or conditions. The leaves are said to be edible and can be used like collard greens, but I’ve never tried them, as on the kohlrabi I’ve grown they are relatively few. The ball, which is really the swollen stem, is peeled of the tough outer layer, and the center is a solid white flesh. I’ve cooked with it, but honestly I prefer it raw, cut up in salads or shredded for a slaw, or just as a unique part of a fresh vegetable tray. It has a mild, slightly sweet flavor that reminds me of the heart of cabbage, well worth the small space and minimal care it requires.
Leeks are a little different, but equally worthy. A member of the allium family that includes onions and garlic, leeks growing in the garden look pretty much like their cousins, and a row of them can be tucked in easily between other things if space is tight. They, too, are relatively care free and unparticular. I generally plant leeks from tiny little starts that look pathetic when they go in the ground. They are a longer season vegetable, maturing at about 125 days, although like onions they can be harvested sooner. The part of the leek that is used is the white root end and the light green section just above it. You can increase this part by blanching, or hilling soil up around the plants as they grow, but I don’t bother. Mature leeks can be an inch or more across, and they lack a distinct bulb on the end like the onions. Leeks, sliced and thoroughly rinsed in cold water to remove any soil or grit that can be between the bundles of leaf sheathes, make a great addition to soups, stews, and stocks, adding their own unique, mild onion-like flavor. A potato leek soup on a late fall day is hard to beat! Leeks can be left standing and harvested as you need them late into winter if the conditions aren’t too severe. Our leeks wintered over just fine this winter and we are still using them from the ground now!
I know we are tempted to tuck in another tomato plant or row of onions when we discover a bit of unused garden space, but consider being a little daring and experimental. Try something new, like leeks or kohlrabi, just a few. These may never become staple crops for you, and they are not going to fill your freezer, but given a chance, those little bits of space can offer up something unique and delicious. I think you may be glad you did!