Under-utilized Food Plants - ECC Connects

Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization www.echo.net), a non-profit in Southwest Florida, helps subsistence farmers in more than 180 countries feed themselves and their families. This is achieved in part by providing growing instructions and free seeds for 150 under-utilized tropical food plants. For the last 16 years I’ve spent my winter months giving tours of ECHO’s demonstration farm featuring many of these plants. Very recently, it occurred to me that in our temperate climate there are under-utilized food plants we could benefit from also.

Since these plants are not available at stores, we need to grow them at home. But we don’t have to be farmers or to have a separate vegetable garden. All that’s necessary is a space with a minimum of six hours of sun. Grow them among sun-loving flowers, in a beautiful circle garden in the middle of what’s presently nothing but lawn, which is inedible, not good for the environment, and takes time, energy, and money to manage.

Soon the seed company catalogs will be available. There’s still time before the ground freezes to prepare places for seeds and plants. My plant recommendations are:


We all have our favorite. Mine is Gilbertie, one of several heirloom varieties I’ve grown for years. Its flavor equals Brandywine, the standard for flavor among heirlooms. Brandywines produce very large fruits that ripen midseason but their uneven shape results in too much waste. I still grow some to have huge slices for hamburgers and BLTs, but Gilberties are my snack, salad, juice, and sauce tomatoes. Large plum size, they have more pulp, less water, fewer seeds and great heirloom taste.

Green beans

Most green bean lovers grow bush beans, several plantings a year. My single bean crop that produces from spring through fall is Fortex, a vigorous pole bean that’s a delicious “filet” at seven inches but equally delicious at all stages up to and beyond a foot in length. Catalogs often exaggerate, but Johnny’s Selected Seeds is right in claiming: “Dark green, firm-textured, round pods are completely stringless and delicious at all lengths, even after the seeds enlarge.” When frozen, most beans taste a lot like soft cardboard. Though it’s November, I’m waiting for us to consume our last fresh Fortex before starting on the five large bags in my freezer. Next spring I’ll pre-sprout the seeds in wet paper towels for a couple of days to get an early start with the soil temperature below 60 degrees.

Sweet potatoes

Don’t need much fertilizing, grow well in the North because their Southern diseases haven’t caught up with them. I grow Sumor, a white sweet potato with good sweetness that increases in storage into the spring. It’s not as sweet as the sweet potatoes labeled intentionally but incorrectly “yams.” (Real yams are tropical plants that produce very starchy 50-pound tubers, which keep many subsistence-level people alive but malnourished.) My Sumors, planted a foot apart in a row, spreading their ground hugging vines 5 or 6-feet out on both sides, are an excellent ground cover, suppressing weeds and showing modest but beautiful purple flowers in summer. Just before first frost, I dig the two-three feet around the roots to collect four to six potatoes per plant. We start eating them right away, but there are still my red potatoes that we enjoy. Cleaned and dried, we store Sumors in a closet in cardboard boxes and enjoy them until we run out about late May or early June.

Where can you get seeds and plants? I try to save my own seed for non-hybrid plants. To start out, try High Mowing Organic Seeds for Gilbertie and Johnny’s Selected Seeds for Fortex. My Sumor sweet potato plants have made their own replacements for so many years that I can only recommend going online to find new plants.

This is how I propagate my Sumors: I select and tuck away six premium tubers. At the end of March, I lay them out in the light until sprouts show at one end of each tuber (about a week). I suspend these by three toothpicks, sprouted ends up, halfway into quart jars of water placed in a sunny window. Shortly, roots grow to fill the jars and sprouts try to become lengthy vines. At about 18 inches I cut them off and into pieces with two leaves at the top. I plant the pieces in potting soil kept moist until root growth indicates it’s time to harden them off and plant them in their rows (or as ground cover in the flower border).

Three more foods that come to mind are zephyr squash (both green and yellow, no squash borer problems, vigorous and prolific), Honeoye strawberry plants, and candy onion plants. Keep them in mind and look for more detail in an upcoming article.