Amy Eddings: In the garden, make room for rutabagas

I’ve always been a fan of the underdog and the overlooked, except for those years I lived in New York City and rooted for the Yankees. Growing up, my TV heartthrobs tended toward the small and the smart aleck: Peter Brady over big brother Greg, Danny Partridge instead of lead singer David. I majored in European history in college, with a specialized focus on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I order lamb at steakhouses.

Even my garden, I’ve learned, is filled with also-rans and runners-up.

I know this because I’ve been perusing the results of Mother Earth News’ National Survey of Most Productive Garden Crops. The publication asked participants to rate a list of common garden vegetables and grains based on ease of culture, use of garden space and time, ease of storage, and “desirability at the table,” though I don’t know why someone would grow something they didn’t want to eat. I’ve turned to the survey for advice on what to grow in the four raised beds in my backyard.

It’s only my second season gardening. All those years growing basil and rosemary in clay pots on my apartment fire escape in Brooklyn don’t count. That was just play gardening. Real gardening requires weeding. You don’t get to call yourself a gardener until you’ve gone toe-to-root system with dandelion and cheat grass.

Last year, besides cheat grass, I grew, with varying degrees of success, kale, cherry tomatoes, slicing tomatoes, sweet corn, mizuna, pole beans, acorn squash, patty pan summer squash, radishes, onions, carrots and rutabagas.

Rutabagas. Who grows rutabagas? In the survey, only 11 percent said it was a garden essential. Yet I gave them a go last year. The yield wasn’t great and they took up a lot of real estate. But those baseball-sized orbs that I was able to harvest were delicious, boiled and mashed and slathered with butter.

Kale? Fifty-seven percent reported they didn’t grow it. I found it super easy to grow and prolific. Same for mizuna, another zesty-tasting green. But greens didn’t get a lot of love from survey takers. An overwhelming majority of gardeners said they didn’t grow mustards, bok choy or turnip greens.

Sweet corn, butter’s best friend, seems to me to be a backyard garden staple. My dad had a little plot of sweet corn when I was a kid. I tried a ‘Peaches and Cream’ variety last year, with great success. But only 33 percent told Mother Earth News they grew it routinely, even though 66 percent gave sweet corn high marks in “kitchen to table” performance. I think it’s because sweet corn takes a lot of space and because we’ve got easy access to local producers such as Suter’s Produce.

No, my precious garden square footage would be better served by tomatoes. Nothing tastes better fresh out of the sun and ripened on the vine. Tomatoes, the big kind for slicing and for pairing with grilled hamburgers or fresh mozzarella, are Mother Earth News’ No. 1 recommended crop in the Central and Midwest Region. Ninety-four percent of the survey participants said slicing tomatoes were an essential, with varieties such as “Beefsteak,” “Brandywine” and “Big Boy” getting the highest marks.

Tomatoes’ down side — sprawling vines and susceptibility to stem rot, worms and other problems — didn’t deter these folks, of whom 51 percent said they were “totally organic” in their methods of combating diseases and pests.

I grew cherry tomatoes and some heirloom varieties last year, and I’d be a fool not to grow them again. They did well and it gave me real pleasure and satisfaction to bite into a slippery, juicy slice of “Cherokee Purple” last summer. But growing tomatoes feels like rooting for Derek Jeter to get a base hit or Mariano Rivera to get a strike out. It feels too easy. It feels like cheating.

I love tomatoes, and sweet peppers, onions and snap beans, among the Top Five recommended crops for our area. Tomatoes will once again have a place in my backyard garden. I even started some from seeds in my basement in February.

But I like giving underdogs a chance in my garden and my kitchen table, too. In “Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love,” author Simran Sethi writes that 95 percent of the world’s calories now come from only 30 species. Thirty! Certainly I can make room for rutabaga.

And kale. And mizuna, too. I’ve even planted some Brussels sprouts. Only 12 percent said they were “easy and productive” in the Mother Earth News survey.

I figure they’ll balance out all those years of growing basil in pots on my fire escape.

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By Amy Eddings

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Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or on Twitter, @lima_eddings.