James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution garden – part 1
by Rhiannon James
James Wong in his front garden
There are two strange things about James Wong’s vegetable patch. One is that half of it is in the front garden – a frolicking, rocketing eruption of greenery amongst neat lawns and parked cars. The second is that barely anything in it is recognisably, well, edible.
According to James, an ethnobotanist who is probably best known for his book and TV series Grow Your Own Drugs which looked at medicinal plants, though, this is what everyone’s raised beds, pots, allotments and gardens should look like. We’re a nation of foodies: stampeding to every cooking show and food festival, hunting down ever more obscure ingredients and sampling any kind of cuisine that comes our way. And yet, walk into the gardens where we grow our ingredients and the scenery is a bit uninspiring. It might be shiso in the fridge, but it’s spuds on the patio.
“It’s such a shame that all these people who are really excited about growing their own food feel that they have to limit themselves to a few things when there are 3,000 things out there they could grow,” he says. His worry is that the current enthusiasm for GYO, especially amongst urban gardeners, will wear itself out slaving over fruit and veg that’s cheap and easy to buy in the shops.
So with a mix of Dr. Hessayon diligence and Jamie Oliver zeal, he’s on a mission to broaden our minds. He has dug up the lawn in his (actually his mum’s – he’s borrowed it) front garden in Croydon and taken over the back yard to create a giant test bed for unusual edible plants from all around the world. And for the last three years, he has been gradually picking out the crops that he thinks can cut it against a courgette, a cabbage or a cucumber.
His criteria are pretty stringent. “There is a very big difference between technically edible and worth eating and in my trial, more important than any growing criteria, was would people really like to eat this,” he says. Crops had to have some rarity value but also be easy to grow, productive and pretty enough to warrant a place even in a tiny plot. “As gardens get smaller, people don’t have the space to stick vegetables at the back by the compost bins, they’ve usually got to have them mixed into their borders,” says James.
Although it’s very far from being a standard trial field, James’ small urban garden, which lacks a greenhouse and any specialist equipment, has proved to be the perfect testing ground for this particular project. “All the negatives such as not having much time, not having much space and not having a huge amount of money to play with turned out to be positives in the end. This is a revolution that hopefully anyone can take part in,” he says.
Tried and tested
The edible plants that have come through the process with flying colours, now organised into a book, are a whirl of super-foods, forgotten fruits, unknown roots, things you wouldn’t know you could grow and things you’re probably growing but didn’t know you could eat.
There’s enough of a Willy Wonka contingent to make Heston proud: how about electric daisies (Acmella oleracea), which create a tingling sensation when you chew them followed by numbness for up to 15 minutes – great as a palate cleanser between courses apparently? Or perhaps some Lilliputian fruits such as cocktail kiwis (Actinidia arguta) and mini-watermelon lookalikes (Melothria scabra)? The cucamelons, as James calls them, which taste like lemony cucumbers and can be eaten on their own or in salads, are still growing away in his garden: “I’ll get a good punnetful from two or three plants even though I sowed the seed two or three months late – you wouldn’t get that with a cucumber if you were growing it outdoors,” says James.
There are also plenty of rather sensible staples, even if they do happen to look a little crazier than our conventional crops. Some low-growing plants with pretty, clover-like foliage in James’ garden turn out to produce tubers, called New Zealand yams or oca, which can be treated exactly like new potatoes – the difference is they come in fluoro shades of pink, orange and purple. “You can get a large crop from a small space, and yet you can only buy them from fancy restaurant suppliers in the UK who’ve flown them in from New Zealand and a kilo costs £12,” says James. Unlike our traditional tuber, the foliage is also edible and has a zingy, sour apple flavour that’s good in salads. “In New Zealand, it’s a really standard supermarket crop called a yam,” says James. “You might think of it as something unusual but it’s blight resistant, easy to grow, looks good and you can eat the leaves – why would you want to grow a potato?” Quinoa plants have added wild splashes of vibrant colour to James’ plot all summer but they also have a double harvest to offer. “You can eat the young leaves – they taste exactly the same as spinach but are much easier to grow,” he says. “Six to eight plants will also produce up to a pound of quinoa which means a tiny area will produce the average supermarket packet. It’s the perfect three in one crop.”
A few exotic surprises lurk in the garden too. Melons are usually flown into the UK but will produce a crop here if you pick the right variety. “I’m growing one called ‘Emir’ which is part of a new wave of melons that are adapted to the UK climate. They provide a decent yield by producing smaller-sized gourds which happen to be the most popular size in the supermarket anyway,” he says.
Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of James’ plot though, is the range of familiar garden plants that are destined for the cooking pot. Dahlia yams are one of James’ top five crops and are to be found at the base of the common-or-garden flower while fuchsias produce berries that are good fresh or in jams. Tulbaghia violacea, a pretty perennial from South Africa that’s growing in the back garden, is also known as society garlic because its leaves have a garlic flavour without any unfortunate effects on the breath. And young hosta shoots, it turns out, are a delicacy in Japan. “Hosta greens sound challenging but amongst leaves and greens, they’d definitely be in my top five,” says James. “They’re a gourmet spring delicacy, the equivalent of really fancy British-grown asparagus.” He says he found it tricky to tuck into some of these plants at first, but the line between ornamental and edible is often shifting thanks to fashion or improved understanding. “Tomatoes were grown in the UK for 200 years as an ornamental plant: people thought they were toxic because they’re in the nightshade family. It took us until Victorian times to discover we could eat them,” James says.
James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20)
Part 2 is here.