- Jodi Torpey
How to Grow Perfectly Imperfect Produce
By Jodi Torpey:
Have you ever grown a square watermelon? Japanese farmers spend extra time purposefully growing watermelons in boxes to satisfy customers who want fruits that fit in small refrigerators and are easier to slice.
Home gardeners are more likely to grow their fruit and vegetable oddities by accident. Picture tomatoes that look like they’re winking, eggplants with noses or zucchini that are so anatomically correct they can make a gardener blush.
There’s usually a good explanation for the strange-looking, but naturally occurring produce that crops up in gardens every so often. Environmental conditions, rocky soil or poor gardening practices can cause perfectly imperfect produce.
Before Patti O’Neal cracked the code on growing flawless carrots, she harvested a few funny-looking roots from her garden. Some carrots came out twisted, others looked like a pair of carrot pants.
She learned that carrots need room to grow and that it’s okay to commit “planticide” in the garden. Even if it’s difficult for new gardeners to thin their root vegetables by pulling up healthy starts, that’s a necessary step to growing nice, straight carrots. Soft, fluffy and rock-free soil can also prevent crazy-looking carrots.
O’Neal is a horticulturist with CSU Extension in Jefferson County. She served as the master gardener coordinator before moving into her current role as Urban Food Systems Coordinator. Over the years, many gardeners have turned to her with questions about their gardens.
“Sometimes gardeners go nuts when things go wrong in the garden,” she says. “But sometimes it’s not their fault at all.”
Vegetable gardeners can take heart knowing they can do everything right and still harvest some oddball fruits and vegetables. They may even grow a tomato in the shape of a heart.
A snail-like cucumber, duck-shaped zucchini or a tomato that looks like a baby’s bottom owe their appearance to deformities caused by poor pollination, O’Neal says. That may help explain any distorted vegetables found in gardens this season.
This gardening year has been especially difficult with “spring in mid-winter and summer in spring. The temperature fluctuations affected the pollinators and they weren’t there when we needed them,” she explains.
Gardeners could take pollination into their own hands if pollinators are scarce, especially with big blossoms on plants like squash. Tomato plants need to be staked loosely to allow for some movement so pollen can spread around.
O’Neal also encourages gardeners to be more mindful about protecting pollinators if using pesticides and herbicides. “Accept a little bit of pressure from insect pests or if you have to spray do it around dusk when pollinators aren’t active.”
Cold temperatures, either before or after tomato plants are flowering or setting fruit, can lead to a tomato deformity called catfacing. The tomatoes that form are misshapen and have scars and holes at the blossom end that can resemble a cat’s face.
Heirloom beefsteak tomatoes are more prone to catfacing than other tomato varieties. To prevent catfacing in the future, select tomato varieties that grow in cold temperatures (like Early Girl, Oregon Spring and Glacier) or cover plants when night-time temperatures are predicted to dip below 55 degrees in spring.
Zippering on tomatoes is another cold-weather problem that can make it seem like a fruit is smiling. These thin brown and zipper-like scars can extend the length of a fruit and usually occur when the flower anther sticks to the developing fruit as it’s growing.
Even though some garden-grown produce is malformed, the deformities don’t have an effect on taste. For example, some jalapeno peppers may display fine lines on their skin called corking. Rapid growth causes these stretch marks that adds extra character but no extra heat.
“With funny distortions or deformities, people might assume there’s a problem with them or that they’re not as good,” O’Neal says. Some heirloom tomatoes could be considered ugly because it’s difficult to always get a perfect-looking fruit. However, the unmistakable flavor of heirlooms is proof that beauty is more than tomato skin deep.
In fact, fans of ugly fruits and vegetables have been successful in getting grocery stores to start selling blemished, small and misshapen produce as a way to prevent food waste.
In 2016 Whole Foods, Walmart, and other grocery retailers started selling cosmetically flawed fruits and vegetables at a discount, instead of tossing them away. Companies like Imperfect Produce deliver wonky-looking vegetables to homes in select cities in California, Washington, Oregon, and Illinois. During the Slow Foods Nation festival in Denver this summer, New York’s Gotham Greens displayed its Ugly Greens packaging in the fight against food waste.
Ugly fruits and vegetables may have hidden benefits, too. Researchers are considering the nutritious merits of fruits produced by plants that are stressed by insects or diseases. Some suspect that when plants fight off environmental problems they may have used their antioxidant defenses resulting in higher levels of healthy compounds. One example is a study that found an apple covered in scab had more healthy antioxidants than an apple with a perfect peel.
Instead of shunning weird vegetables, backyard gardeners should celebrate them and even try growing more of them. Besides adding a bit of whimsy to typical garden fare, these oddities can win prizes for Best Mutation at a county fair.
Jodi Torpey is the author of Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening and The Colorado Gardener’s Companion: An Insider’s Guide to Gardening in the Centennial State.