James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution Garden – part 2
by Rhiannon James
James Wong in his front garden
For three years, James Wong has been on the hunt to find unusual crops that can cut it against a courgette, a cabbage or a cucumber, using his small urban garden in Croydon as a test bed. In part 1 James showed off some of his favourites from tiny, crunchy cucamelons to crazily-coloured New Zealand yams.
So if all these edible plants are so great, why aren’t we growing them, or in the case of the traditionally ornamental plants, eating them already? “Because almost every gardening book for the last 60 years has talked about 20 crops, so, understandably, people think you can only grow about 20 crops, but that’s just not the case,” James says emphatically.
Information on unusual but tasty food plants that could perform well in the UK was limited enough to make him feel a trial was essential. He started off by visiting every kind of food shop and deli to seek out unusual but tasty fruit and vegetables and then worked out, from the origin and cultivation of each one, whether it might grow productively in the UK. He also read every gardening book about edibles he could get his hands on. “Then with things that looked promising, I was like OK, let’s get hold of some seed and give it a go,” he says. Help has come from some unexpected quarters, including his neighbours. “There’s a guy from New Zealand who used to be a commercial horticulturalist – he lives two streets away and walks past every day with his daughter. He’s grown a lot of this stuff because they’re very experimental over there. There’s also a lady from Bolivia who misses all these Andean vegetables. I grow them but then I say, ‘How do you eat this?’ And she says, ‘What you’ve got to do is slice them in half, put some butter on them and stick them in the oven’.”
Because, during his trial, he ruled out any temperamental plants, James is convinced that his unusual edibles will be as easy for beginners to grow as more traditional veg. For the wary though, he suggests fruit is a good place to start. “Most of them come back year after year with minimal labour; generally fruits are the most expensive of all produce to buy and the plants are nice to look at. In gardening terms, the UK has probably been more adventurous in terms of the fruit it grows than anything else. All the catalogues will sell you a cocktail kiwi, very few would sell you something as obscure if it was a vegetable,” he says. At the moment, James is looking forward to harvesting his Asian pears: they will be crisper but much more fragrant than a ‘Conference’ or a ‘Concorde’. James also says that unusual crops have a secret advantage for beginner growers. “Potatoes have been grown in the UK, and on a commercial scale, for 400 years – that’s 400 years for pests and diseases to discover what they are, how to eat them and how to evolve with them to be resistant to their defence mechanisms. For the first 100 years that potatoes were grown in the UK, they don’t appear to have had blight problems at all.”
It might, in fact, be dealing with some of these crops in the kitchen that turns out to be the tricky part. Ideas on what to do with blue sausage fruit anyone? James has tackled this problem by providing preparation instructions, serving suggestions and recipes for the crops in his book and he is also writing a blog with more detailed information about what he’s up to in his garden and at his cooker. Growing ingredients for a familiar cuisine might help the whole plot to pot process and there’s certainly no shortage of choice – from asparagus peas for stir-fries to tomatillos for quesadillas or perhaps even some skirret (Sium sisarum) for a really traditionally British meal. This perennial plant, which is growing in James’ back garden and produces bunches of thin parsnip-like vegetables, was a very popular root crop in Europe until it was gradually replaced by a newer, trendier arrival from the Americas – the potato.
The problem of sourcing seeds and plants to grow these unusual crops has been tackled by Suttons, who have launched a range linked to James’ book. Seeds for 30 different crops including electric daisies, cucamelons, white strawberries, tomatillos and asparagus peas are available now and a plant range will be added next year.
Whether this revolt against the hegemony of traditional veg will blossom into a full-blown revolution remains to be seen. Some will say it has been tried before and not with great success, others that change is already well on the way in community spaces and veg plots. Plenty of people will probably disagree with James’ criticisms of growing traditional veg. Giving potatoes as an example, he says in the book, “I believe we should stop growing crops that are cheap to buy, widely available and whose flavours differ little from the shrink-wrapped supermarket offerings.”
But James is prepared to stick to his guns. He says: “People are expecting these crops to be fresher, cheaper and taste better but lots of things taste exactly the same; they’re often not very fresh because there’s a glut and they’ve been hanging around for ages and they’re more expensive to grow than they are to buy. All of these things conspire to chip away at people’s sense of satisfaction.”
“I find growing dahlia yams far more satisfying than growing potatoes – I do a lot less work; I get beautiful flowers throughout the summer that I’d grow even if I didn’t want my garden to look like an allotment; I’ve got something I can’t buy in the shops or if I did, it would cost a fortune, and something that tastes better than a potato, so my satisfaction is quadrupled,” he says. And in James’ garden at least, it starts to seem perfectly natural to crunch through a cucamelon or nibble on an Asian pear.
Part 1 is here.