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Best Vegetables to Grow in D.C.–with Recipes

March 10th, 2011 · 21 Comments · Posted in garden, Recipes

Here's a vegetable built for the District of Columbia

Did you hear the show about urban kitchen gardening on Kojo Nnamdi yesterday? If not, you can listen to the archived version at Kojo’s website. We covered a lot of ground–so to speak–including spring garden prep, how to garden in an apartment, rats, and scavenging the neighborhood for composting materials.

There’s never enough time for all of the subjects that come up in a half-hour segment. The one thing I came prepared to talk about was my list of vegetables that have worked best for me, our garden and our kitchen here in D.C., two miles from the White House. I was able to say a few words about okra. And a few more words about sweet potatoes. But most of the list fell by the wayside. It would be a great thing if District of Columbia kitchen gardeners could get together and compare notes on this subject. We could develop not only a list of best vegetables, but even the most desirable varieties of those vegetables for our particular growing conditions.

My list comprises those plant varieties that have impressed me the most over the years. Obviously there are many other vegetables you may want to grow–legions of stellar candidate, in fact–that I did not include. Let me just tell you why I think the ones I selected deserve special consideration. Where appropriate, I’ll also link to recipes that you can find on this site.

Okra: Some people are put off because they think it’s slimy. I’ve never had that problem, except when I tried to prepare okra raw. Okra loves heat and humidity. It seems to thrive in temperatures that make tomato plants wilt. A fairly compact, erect and pest-free plant, it takes up very little space for the amount of edible pods it produces. And as the season wears on–and the plants get taller–okra just produces more and more. At a certain point, we have to check the okra twice a day to harvest the pods. We grow Clemson Spineless, an extremely reliable variety.

Recipes: Curried okra and eggplant stew with basil and coconut milk; spicy pickled okra.

Sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes, tropical by nature, are extremely easy to grow. Ours were never bothered by any pests. Watching them come out of the ground at harvest is such a kick. I mean, wow! Sweet potatoes just like you see at the supermarket emerging right in your urban plot. They are a great source of calories (too starchy for me anymore, unfortunately) and loaded with essential vitamins and minerals. Sweet potatoes rank high on any list of healthful foods. Besides all that, the leaves are edible. I’ve used them with great success in our okra stews.

Recipes:Sweet potato galette with gorganzola cheese; sweet potato salad with orange-maple dressing.

Ruby Swiss chard: Any kind of Swiss chard grows like a champ through all kinds of climate here in D.C., producing a ton of leafy greens and edible stems. It requires zero maintenance and yields to no pests that I have seen. A few plants keep us all season long. It dies back in winter, but comes right back in early spring to provide more food when the garden is otherwise bare, before going to seed. We like the ruby variety for its beet-like flavor.

Recipe: Braised ruby chard with pomegranate molasses.

Green Swiss chard. Everything I said about ruby chard goes equally for the green variety. We had not grown it until fairly recently, so I did not have experience cooking it until a friend gave us a bunch while we were vacationing in Maine. I thought it needed something herbal, and the best thing I had on hand was a bottle of gin. Turns out chard and gin go extremely well together. Otherwise, it’s widely used in creamy casseroles and gratins. Do plan to eat the stems.

Recipe: Green chard braised in gin.

Green Beans: I know this sound terribly prosaic. But I’ve been totally impressed by how green beans thrive in our heat and humidity and without any pests that I’ve noticed. We tend to prefer the bush varieties. They produce an incredible amount of beans. But we also like pole beans for their ability to grow vertically, taking up so very little space. The trellis system we use creates a wall of beans. But you do have to harvest them assiduously when they are young, lest they get stringy. We especially like the flat, Italian heirloom varieties.

Recipes: Green beans with anchovies; green beans braised three hours.

Eggplant: This is another vegetable that seems especially well-suited to our hot summers. A single plant can produce a tremendous amount of food with little maintenance and disease-free. Last year, however, we were visited by a family of field mice who enjoyed boring into the fruits of our eggplant and hollowing them out. If you encounter such a problem, I would not bother planting eggplant until you deal with the mice. We love incorporating eggplant into our okra stews. Our recipe for eggplant preserved in oil is one of the most sought-after on the site.

Recipes: Eggplant preserved in oil; baba ganouj.

Heirloom Italian summer squash Costata Romanesca: Gardeners aren’t supposed to go away on vacation. You never know what you’ll come home to if the vegetables have been left unattended. That’s certainly true of this squash. It will grow as long as your arm, weighing four pounds or more. At this trophy size, I decided to scoop out the seeds, cut the squash into pieces and pickle it. My sweet pickled squash won “Best D.C.-Grown Food Product” in the first-ever D.C. State Fair last year. Otherwise, we love this squash for its lovely yellow stripes set against a deep green. We have had problems with blossom end rot, which may be because we switched seed suppliers. Lesson: stick with what works.

Recipes:Summer squash carpaccio; sweet pickled zucchini

Lacinato kale (aka Tuscan kale):Food gardeners should also care about the aesthetics of their garden and planting things that look good. Lacinato kale is at the top of my list of vegetables that are also ornamentals. Fully grown, it looks like a little palm tree with long, fairly norrow leaves that are deeply etched and a handsome, blue-ish green color. But of course the leaves are also edible, and I like the idea of being able to grow them in profusion on a compact plant, rather than devoting a large space to loose kale plants that at some point will be interspersed with weeds. If you only have room for one type of kale, give Lacinato kale priority.

Recipes: Southern-style braised kale; Portuguese kale and potato soup.

Fava beans: These are the traditional Old World beans, the one bean variety that does not have roots in the Americas. You can easily recognize them by their huge, bulging pods, which have a fur lining and seeds that develop their own  secondary shell that is typically removed before eating. I include them here because I find them easier to grow than other spring legumes, such as English peas or snap peas. Between these latter two, I prefer snap peas because the pod is edible. But you do need to erect some kind of trellis system for them to climb.

While they take up more space in the garden, the fava bean plant is an architectural marvel, with a very angular, Art Deco look to it. The blossoms are extraordinary: long and silvery white, with a big black dot on one end. When the favas are in bloom, it looks like a flock of butterflies have landed.

Favas would appreciate a longer, cooler spring than the one here in the District of Columbia. Our’s heats up pretty fast, and by the time the fava beans are ready to harvest, the plants look exhausted. If climate continues to warm, I wonder how much longer we’ll be able to grow favas at all. Try planting them in the fall as well.

Recipes: Bruschetta with favas and peas; Beef tongue with favas 

Dr. Carolyn heirloom cheery tomato: Tomatoes are everyone’s favorite vegetable, so I’m not going to open a can of worms by trying to argue which is the best. In fact, last year, the hottest on record here in D.C., was really bad for our tomatoes. We didn’t get much production, and what I kept hearing from my wife was, why no tomatoes when we had a $150 water bill in July? We saw plenty of blossoms, but they just seemed  to fade without making fruit. We had a similar problem with our cucumbers. But one tomato variety we like in particular in Dr. Carolyn, named for a famous tomato expert, Dr. Carolyn Male. This tomato produces a profusion of sweet, golden tomatoes that we’ve incorporated into a number of recipes.

Recipes: Black bean and corn salsa with cherry tomatoes; green beans with sauteed cherry tomatoes

Hakurei turnips: Our favorite radish is actually a turnip, and it comes from Japan. A friend turned me on to Hakurei turnips, which grow into a snow-white globe and have none of the bite of an ordinary turnip–or a radish, for that matter. They are the smoothest, creamiest turnip you will ever come across. We frequently serve them as an hors d’oeuvre when guests arrive. I can hardly get enough of them. Some people like the spiciness of a traditional radish. Me, too. But if you’re looking for something a bit different in the radish vein, try Hakurei. It loves growing in our garden all season long.

Leeks: Kitchen gardeners, especially those with limited space, should prioritize planting things they particularly like to eat, and those that are costly to purchase elsewhere. Leeks fit perfectly in that category. Until recently, I wasn’t aware how easily they grow here in D.C. I always seemed to have a packet of seeds that kept getting pushed to the back of the pile, never used. But finally I was inspired to dig a trench about six inches deep the length of our longest garden bed, into which I sowed a row of tiny leek seeds, not knowing quite what to expect. What eventually emerged was dozens of tall, incredibly robust leeks, all marching in single file. At one point I did thin them out a bit and moved some around to give each enough room to grow.

I was prepared to pile compost around each plant to get the white stems leeks are known for. But it wasn’t necessary. They came out perfectly without any further effort. So whereas we’ve had spotty success with onions and garlic in our garden, I am now sold on leeks. I’ve yet to start a real search for leek recipes. For now, we continue to use them as an aromatic, especially in the boiled beef tongue that I make on a fairly regular basis. The cooking liquid, made with plenty of leeks, yields an incredible broth that I like to drink out of a coffee mug.

Recipe: Boiled beef tongue (with leeks).

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  • Taylor

    This is a really, really helpful list! I’m embarking on my first growing season in Virginia (after three years in Massachusetts) and growing up in Alabama, so this takes some guesswork out of what I can grow successfully. REALLY excited about okra and sweet potatoes!

  • Bethesda Locavore

    This is great! So useful. I’ve been trying (slowly, the kids come first) to teach myself this stuff – wouldn’t it be wonderful if every street corner looked like yours? And if we all just KNEW this stuff because this is what everybody did? I haven’t had a chance to listen to the show yet (little kids, little kids) but am hoping I’ll get a little chunk of time today. Loved the video of your garden though. I’m getting inspired.

  • Carrie

    We also have had great luck with okra. We’ve done really well with butternut squash (although it definitely can take up quite a bit of real estate) and jalapenos. We are going to be trying chard for the first time this year. I’m excited to hear that it grows well for you!

  • Mary W

    This is a great list. I live in Howard County and have a problem with bugs eating the green beans. I wonder if being in the city isolates you from these critters. I’m planning to bring the sweet potato salad to a housewarming party this weekend (one of the best things I’ve ever made) and will try the kale and potato soup. I may try the green beans in the pressure cooker–it will take some convincing for my husband to try them.

  • Ed Bruske

    Honestly, we’ve never had a pest problem with our green beans. But, as you say, that may be because there are no other gardens nearby with green beans in them. Perhaps if we continue growing them long enough, the bugs would find us.

    We typically don’t use young, fresh beans to make that 3-hour braise. I think it’s better with beans that are a little older, the kind you typically find in the supermarket.

  • Kathy J, Washington Gardener Magazine

    Looks like everyone did gangbusters with okra last year!
    Green Spring Gardens in Fairfax, VA, has developed a terrific. comprehensive list of best edibles for our area – proven varieties, planting times, etc. I adapted and updated a version of that with their staff for publication in Washington Gardener Magazine.
    Another great source of proven local edible information is the Univ of MD HGIC web site.

  • Ed Bruske

    That’s great. D.C. has its own urban climate and conditions. I wonder how our list might look different.

  • Ryan Lacz

    Great post, and even better segment on Kojo’s show!

    I’m in the midst of getting an urban garden started in NE DC (and blogging about my adventures too, and these veggies are mostly on the list for this year. Agreed that sweet potatoes are easy to grow, and so much fun to dig up!

    Chard is one of my favorites, and the plants overwinter very well: even after 3 feet of snow last year!

  • Trudy

    Foot long or asparagus beans do not attract beetles the way regular green beans do. They are all I use now I too had a terrific crop of okra last year. I like the small green chard I get from You can even use it instead of lettuce in sandwiches after lettuce has gone to seed in midsummer.

  • Christiana Aretta

    Here are some vegetables I’ve had really good experience with:

    Cowgirl peppers
    Jalapeño peppers
    Yellow Boy Tomatoes
    Roma Tomatoes
    Pretty much any variety of cucumber

    Strawberries do really well here too

  • Leigh Ann

    I was traumatized a couple of years ago by my encounter with the Mexican Bean Beetle (so UGLY and hard to get rid of organically), despite a ridiculous bumper crop of beans. As a result, I’m not going to grow them ever again. For the community gardeners, you may want to ask the veterans about history of infestation.

  • Eve

    I have to say that simple grilled leeks are my favorite – we cut off the unruly green ends ( keeping the part that holds together both green and white) and put them in tinfoil with a tough of olive oil and balsamic. They cook on the grill in 20-40 minutes dependingon the size and number in the packet.

  • Ed Bruske

    Leigh Ann, you are the second reader to mention insect problems with green beans. We’ve never experienced that. But I’ve certainly got it on my radar now. I wonder what the local extension service (U. of Md.) has to say about it.

    Eve, thanks so much for reminding me about one of our favorite ways to prepare leeks: braised. I cut the in half lengthwise, then caramelize them in olive oil, at which point I lower the heat, add some white wine or vermouth (you could use gin for a more herbal kick) and cover the pan. Cook until the leeks are very soft. You’ve inspired me to make some for dinner tonight, we have so many leeks in the garden.

  • Sarah

    Thank you thank you! I’ve been looking for exactly this list!

  • Cornell Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners Team

    Great post! As people choose which varieties to grow this year, they might find it helpful to get the perspective of other gardeners on Cornell’s Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners website. With over 6,000 varieties in the database, and countless reviews, this can be an invaluable tool for the passionate gardener. Also, feel free to join our Facebook group and ask questions on the Wall. You can join this group at!/group.php?gid=105146476212801

  • susan harris

    Ed, thanks so much for your generous words about me on the Kojo Show! As I remember it, you didn’t need much coaxing to start this blog.

    And I too will take your best-veg advice – thanks. Am hoping for more reasonable summer temperatures this year.

  • Pattie

    Ed: This is fantastic. I wrote a post around it as most of it applies to our metro Atlanta growing conditions as well:

  • Tanya

    Great blog, thank you! Do you think late Sept is too late to start potatoes, kale and leeks here in DC? Thanks!

  • Ed Bruske

    I have never planted potatoes or leeks this time of year. Potatoes are not a cold weather vegetable: They will die with the first frost. Leeks I plant in the spring and they will last into the winter. You might want to research that question more. You can defnitely plant garlic now to harvest next year. Kale and other brassica greens also will do just fine planted now. You can plant them into the first week of October to overwinter, so that they are available for harvesting all the way through next spring.

  • Shannon

    This is a great list. My experience gardening in Maryland the past seven years definitely proves that you’re right on the money. I’m a big fan of the sweet potato which, in my opinion may be hands-down the easiest thing to grow! The only reason that I don’t grow okra anymore is that it grows SO well that I can’t keep up with harvesting it!

  • Ed Bruske

    Now I’ve got to come up with a completely new list for Upstate New York, Shannon. Or maybe global warming will make everybody’s list the same.