Expanding Food Horizons…Kohlrabi Lovers Unite!

Lisa Hilgenberg —  May 6, 2014 — Leave a comment

Recent interactions at the neighborhood market have reaffirmed our work of inspiring folks to become more adventurous vegetable gardeners and consumers. The girl at the checkout counter often questions my vegetable selections. Recently, she had to ask (holding up a bag of produce), “…peas?” I said, “fava beans.” Of another bag, she asked, “lettuce?” I replied, “Napa cabbage.”

It’s exciting to expand our food horizons. Like the mouse who expands his horizons in If You Give A Mouse A Cookie by Laura Numeroff, when you set out to do one thing, it often snowballs, becoming a cascade of challenges and rewards. You often become more involved and do more than you originally set out to accomplish. The mouse only wanted to eat a cookie, but quickly realized that if he ate that cookie, he’d need a glass of milk. Set a goal of growing three new vegetables this year—it may be the beginning of an interesting sequence of events. If you grow three new veggies in the garden…you’re probably in for new culinary adventures in the kitchen, or maybe you’ll dig out an old family recipe. Perhaps you’ll share a meal with a neighbor. Sounds pretty good to me. Here are a few veggies you might like to try.

PHOTO: Young kohlrabi plants bordered by onions on the Fruit & Vegetable island.

Kohl is the German word for cabbage, and rübi means turnip. Find kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea ‘Kolibri’) in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.


The Victory Garden movement of World War II was responsible for bringing kohlrabi to the American dinner table, because it was a reliably cooperative vegetable to grow. There are two old varieties of this underrated gem—green and purple. ‘Early Purple Vienna’ is not only a beautiful heirloom in the garden; it has sweet, white flesh, and is crisp like an apple when eaten as raw matchsticks. It can also be cooked like cabbage. A quickly-maturing, hardy spring and fall crop, it matures in 55 days. Due to its ability to hold well in the field, the bulbs (botanically, the edible bulb is actually part of the stem) won’t need to be harvested all at once. You can enjoy one sweet kohlrabi at a time. 

PHOTO: Rutabega in the garden.

Rutabaga (Brassica napus)


Another common vegetable in the Victory Garden, rutabagas are “a butter and cream veggie, as Scandinavians would prepare them,” according to Deborah Madison in Vegetable Literacy. Rutabagas are named for their dense roots—the name in Swedish means root bag. They are also commonly known as Swedes or yellow turnips. This cabbage turnip cross yields lovely, pale, crisp, buttery yellow flesh. More nutritious than turnips—unless you eat their greens—rutabagas are delicious mashed or pureed with root vegetables or julienned into french fries. Long-seasoned in the field, they take 90 days to mature and last a long time in proper post-harvest storage. What a difference the rutabaga made to hungry families in lean times! 


Our final selection, turnips, are best grown quickly during the cool seasons of spring and fall, and vary greatly in taste and quality depending on climate, variety, and culture. Some varieties were widely used to feed livestock, while other turnips indulged the most sophisticated epicure. The Hakurei turnip is a beautiful, white, Japanese salad turnip that is best grown quickly (40 days) in the spring garden. When harvested young, Purple Top Globe lends itself to delicious sea-salted slices. While turnips and radishes resemble each other, turnip greens are more nutritious. Both can be sweet and crisp or hot and spicy depending on maturity and weather. Enjoy raw or cooked turnips with radish greens. They are wonderful when eaten together.

PHOTO: A bunch of white Hakurei turnips.

Hakurei turnip ( Brassica rapa ‘Hakurei’)

Turnips also happen to be part of what we are growing this year as part of our Victory Garden display, growing the vegetable varieties and plants people would have grown during wartime to sustain themselves and their community. The value of Victory Gardens is tremendous, and the message is current again: a local and multi-faceted food system—home gardeners, urban farmers, other small scale growers—supports a more resilient community overall.

As these Victory Garden plantings unfold in the Fruit & Vegetable Garden this season, perhaps we will take a moment to contemplate our own personal food histories allowing them to inform us as to why we eat the way we do. Our work of today finds such congruence with the Victory Garden experience—a time when the United States government printed and circulated vegetable-growing primers. This was a time when our country grew 41 percent of its produce at home out of duty, honor, and necessity, and with the help provided by botanic gardens, community gardens, horticultural societies, and garden clubs. While our war is thankfully different today, it is a war still. It’s a war on nutritional deficiencies and obesity, on food deserts and hunger. Learning to grow your own is a powerful way to participate, to contribute and to change your food footprint!

Like the mouse who eats the cookie, which leads him to ask for a glass of milk, perhaps we will plant the heirloom seed that will grow a bumper tomato crop that will necessitate learning how to can tomato sauce. Whether it’s food preservation, saving on your grocery bill,  sharing with a neighbor, or exploring exotic vegetables that interests you, dig deep and find the motivation to grow food at home!

Tweet to me @hilgenberg8 and let me know which three vegetables you chose to plant in your garden this spring. Good growing to you!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Lisa Hilgenberg

Posts Twitter

Lisa Hilgenberg is the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden Horticulturist. She teaches classes for the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden and mentors interns from the Garden’s urban agriculture programs in the summer. Lisa draws on a rich family farming tradition, having spent many summers on her grandparents’ farms in Iowa and Minnesota. You can follow Lisa on Twitter @hilgenberg8.

No Comments

Be the first to start the conversation.

Leave a Reply


Text formatting is available via select HTML. <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>