Getting in the Garden Groove with John Schroeder: Always Try Something New

Gardening is like a lot of things in life in that we often end up going back to what is familiar to us year after year. We all have our “go to” items that we like to raise and harvest annually, and it’s just easier to keep growing those same crops each season. But I think part of what makes gardening fun is to try something different just about every year.


This year’s “newbie” for me is an heirloom tomato called "Atomic Grape." This oversized cherry variety comes in a variety of colored and striped patterns. The seed company that produced it claims it has incredible flavor, and we’ll find out as the harvest is just beginning.

Heirloom tomatoes are themselves a bit of a new thing for me. For years I grew mainly well-known hybrid varieties like Beefsteak, Big Boy and Early Girl. Hybrids are supposedly bred to be more disease-resistant and to produce greater amounts of tomatoes per plant. But many gardening veterans will tell you that while many heirloom varieties produce a lower yield, what you DO get off your plants are tomatoes that pack so much more flavor. And I learned that first-hand three years ago when I first tried an heirloom type called Black Crim. This variety has intensely wonderful flavor – the kind of tomato that you want to make the “star of the dish” in a BLT sandwich or as the topping for a salad.

Black Crim heirloom tomato. (PHOTO: John Schroeder)
Black Crim heirloom tomato. (PHOTO: John Schroeder)

As you can see, this type of tomato has a very different look with its green-purple-red color blends. When I first started growing them I left the first few fruits on the vine too long and they began to rot. I thought based on their appearance that they were still ripening, but that’s just how they look. Now I determine if they’re ready to pick through a gentle “squeeze test.”

Last year, I grew for the first time radicchio (ruh-DEE-kee-oh), that sort of lettuce-cabbage hybrid that you may have previously experienced in restaurants. It’s mostly purple in color and has a slightly bitter taste that adds a nice deviation to the salads we make. I grew it for the first time last year with limited success, but this year I’ve gotten at least four good sized heads to form and I’ve really enjoyed eating this new crop.

Have you ever eaten jicama (HICK-uh-muh)? This white, somewhat flavorless vegetable is most often seen cut into raw spears and included in vegetable trays with dip. Store-bought jicama often comes from Mexico, so I didn’t even know if would grow well or at all in our mid-Minnesota climate. But I saw seeds a couple of years ago and I gave it a try. What I learned is that jicama vines out somewhat and that the “fruits” form underground. I ended up with about 10 bulbs of varying sizes that I harvested last fall (it has a very long growing season,) and my plants this year appear to be headed toward another successful outcome.

I love eating beets, and a few years back I decided to try golden beets. They have a slightly milder flavor than their red cousins, and they make a very attractive addition to your plate.

I’ve written before about how for the longest time I avoided growing potatoes. I was afraid of the dreaded potato bug, and I had no real clue as to how to successfully raise and harvest them. But like some of these other things I’ve mentioned here I just went ahead and tried them one year…and now I can’t imagine a growing season where I wouldn’t have at least a few spud plants in the garden. This year I have four different varieties going including baby reds, a version of the Yukon Gold, a few fingerlings, and I’m also trying to grow russets that I planted after I left some store bought potatoes sit too long and they began to sprout on me.

I began growing garden greens like kale and collards several years back and they have both become favorites of mine. In addition to their nutritional value both of these hearty plants can be tremendous as a cooked side dish. I remember my mom cooking fresh or canned spinach for me as a kid and I swore I would never willingly prepare cooked greens once I was out on my own. But I’ve created a recipe that I absolutely love that includes lots of garlic, red pepper flakes and my own homemade chili powered created from ground up ancho and chipotle peppers, and I think making kale and collards this way makes a winning side for a steak or some kind of BBQ.

Not all attempts at growing new crops are successful. Three years ago I tried raising fennel, the anise-flavored bulb that is popular in many Italian dishes. My plants grew healthy looking fronds above ground but the bulbs never really developed. I’m wondering if I left them in the ground long enough. I will likely try them again some year in the near future.

Another unmitigated new crop failure for me has been fenugreek -- an herb that is popular in Indian cuisine. I had never heard of fenugreek before I began to learn about that culture’s food scene. But I happened upon some seeds two springs ago and tried growing it for the first time last year. With that initial crop and in my efforts again this season the plants started out just fine but they kind of withered and died before I harvested them. I was waiting longer to do that as I found very little aromatic quality to the plants when I snipped off samples several times early in the growing season. I have no idea what I may have done wrong, and my fenugreek experiment is probably done for foreseeable future.

If you find yourself growing the “same old same old” every year you might want to try something different in 2021. You might just discover a new personal favorite somewhere down the line.


Next week: No two ways about it –
gardening involves lots of hard work.


John Schroeder is a sales guy at Townsquare Media St. Cloud, but in his past life, he was an on-air personality specializing in sports. But what really turns his crank is getting out in his 28 x 15 foot vegetable garden several times a week nurturing, eventually harvesting (and sometimes sharing) homegrown food.


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