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August 2, 2019

Gardening: Exotic veggies add flavor and diversity

Native to Mexico and domesticated 800 B.C., the tomatillo has a sweet, citrus-like flavor. Photo/Franklin Garcia
By Ann Atanasio
Master Gardener

As you savor the harvest from your garden this summer, consider some options. There are many other delicious varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs that grow well in our area and will add flavor and diversity to your cuisine.

A few of these garden treasures can be found growing at Schoolhouse 18 east of Marshall. Think about adding one or more to your planting list next year.

You’ve probably seen the tomatillo in your grocery store and perhaps have enjoyed its sweet, citrus-like flavor in salsa verde. Tomatillo plants (Physalis philadelphica and Physalis ixocarpa) are native to Mexico, where the Aztecs domesticated them around 800 B.C.

They can also thrive, with care, in Virginia.

Plants should be started 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost. Alternatively, many garden centers offer plants in the spring.

When planting outdoors, select a location that gets full sun and is well-drained. Remember, they are native to a hot, dry climate and will not thrive in soil that is soggy or shaded.

Set out your tomatillo plants at the same time you plant tomatoes, when all danger of frost is past. Like tomatoes, tomatillos sprout roots along the stem, so it is beneficial to plant them deeply. They will grow from 3 to 4 feet tall and equally as wide.

They do well in tomato cages, but can grow without support. Be warned that tomatillos are not self-fertilizing, which means you must grow two or more tomatillos plants for fruit to develop.

Harvest when the fruit is firm and fills out the husk, and the husk is dry, papery and straw yellow. Harvested tomatillos may be stored in their husks at room temperature for up to one week, or in the refrigerator for two weeks or longer.

The chayote (Sechium edule) is a member of the cucurbitaceae family, which includes cucumbers and squash. Native to southern Mexico and Guatemala, it has been cultivated since pre-Columbian times.

The chayote vine produces a pale green, pear-shaped fruit, with smooth skin. The nutty flavored fruit is a good source of potassium and Vitamin C. Although the plant is primarily grown for its fruit, the root, stem and leaves are also edible.

Chayote is sprouted from a mature fruit purchased at the grocery store. Because the plants require 120 to 150 frost-free days, the fruit should be planted no later than three to four weeks after the last frost.

Alternatively, the plant can be started earlier indoors in a one-gallon pot and transplanted into the garden. The fruit itself should be buried at a 45-degree angle with the stem up and level with the soil surface.

Plants should be placed 8 to 10 feet apart beside a trellis or other support. Chayote vines will need a structure to climb, because the maturing fruit will spoil if it’s allowed to come into contact with the soil.

Water the plants regularly and deeply. Chayote will be ready to harvest when the fruit reaches 4 to 6 inches in diameter, before the flesh gets hard. Fresh chayote will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Ground cherries (genus Physalis) are small, orange fruits inside a papery husk. They are native to many parts of the United States, and are not related to cherries, but are in the nightshade family (Solanaceae).

The plant is easy to grow from seeds, but needs to be started early indoors. Young plants should be transplanted when all danger of frost is past in a location with full sun and good drainage. As with tomatoes, ground cherries sprout roots along their stems, so seedlings should be planted deeply leaving three sets of leaves above the soil.

Ground cherries require 2 to 3 square feet of space and can grow up to 3 feet tall. They can spread along the ground or climb in a cage. They may also be grown in a container.

Each ground cherry plant can produce up to 300 fruit continuously until the first frost. The fruit is ready to harvest when the wrapper has turned a whitish-yellow color. At this point, the cherry can be easily picked from the vine, or you can wait until the fruits drop from the vine (hence the name “ground cherry”) and simply gather them.

In a week or less, the harvested fruit will finish ripening indoors as their color changes from light yellow to a warm gold. Ground cherries should be stored in their husks in a dry, dark place and will stay fresh for up to three months. Husked fruits may be refrigerated for up to a week. Ground cherries can also be frozen. Their wonderful sweet-tart taste makes them a delicious choice for a variety of recipes.

These are only a few examples of the tasty crops you can grow successfully at home.

Schoolhouse 18, at 7592 E. Main St., Marshall, is open dawn to dusk daily. Stop by to see these vegetables growing in the demonstration garden that Extension Master Gardeners maintain. Consider experimenting with one or more of these plants to add flavor and diversity to your garden and your cuisine.
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