The Edible Garden Show: top tips for city gardeners
by Drucilla James
James Wong in The Experts Theatre credit: The Edible Garden Show
Out of gloomy buildings on a grey day, the Edible Garden Show produced an array of colourful and exotic suggestions for bringing excitement to plot and plate.
The Edible Garden Show is the only national event dedicated to grow-your-own and was launched in response to the growing number of people digging for their dinner; 5% of everything we eat is now home-grown and following the recent food scandals that percentage looks set to increase.
Debbie Smith, a Director of the show said that many “grow-your-own enthusiasts come from urban gardens and tiny spaces” and speakers James Wong, Alys Fowler, Tom Moggach and Marcus Eyles took up this theme, offering their top tips on getting the most from petite (or even indoor) plots.
Where to Grow
One key message from the show was that you can grow food anywhere, even a windowless basement – no garden or allotment required!
Tom Moggach, author of The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing & Cooking in the City, suggested thinking laterally when looking for a place to grow. Outdoor window ledges can be used more productively by putting up trellis or hanging pots from the sills while on patios, he recommended creating tiers of containers to pack in more plants or lifting a few slabs to make miniature garden squares.
TV botanist and author James Wong had plenty of suggestions for house plants that look, and taste, good including cardamom whose attractive, scented leaves can be used in tea or to wrap fish or chicken; kaffir lime whose leaves are a staple in Thai cooking and vanilla grass which can be used instead of vanilla pods.
Another productive possibility for a spare windowsill is micro-farming – growing herbs such as dill, basil and coriander and vegetables with edible leaves, in miniature.
Or how about giving fungiculture a go? Oyster mushrooms are the best option for beginners, James said.
What to Grow
When it comes to choosing crops for a small plot, make the most of the space available by growing the beautiful, the valuable, the plentiful or the unusual, the experts recommended.
City gardener and author Alys Fowler sang the praises of edible flowers as a way to both an eye-catching garden and more colourful salads. Her favourites include pansies (the bluest flowers are the sweetest), carnations which “taste of bubble gum and are also great in puddings”, calendulas, cornflowers, primulas, violets, many campanulas and roses. “Rose petal jam is delicious in yoghurt,” she said.
James too, recommended tucking into a few flower bed favourites such as daylilies; Amaranthus which tastes of spinach and broccoli; hostas whose shoots are redolent of asparagus or artichokes and Chilean guava, a plant with scented, lily-of-the-valley type flowers and berries that taste of strawberries, kiwis and …candyfloss.
If you don’t fancy eating plants you’re used to treating as ornamentals, there are also plenty of more traditional fruit and vegetables that are both decorative and delicious, it was revealed. Alys’ suggestions for better-looking leaves than you’d find in your average salad included: pak choi, red mustard greens, ‘Catalogna’ lettuce which “looks divine”, Allium cernuum –“a great spring onion substitute”, wild rocket, buckler leaf sorrel, blood-veined sorrel -“incredibly attractive” and caraway foliage.
Enthusiasm for ornamental edibles was a theme across the show, with seed company D.T. Brown reporting high sales of brightly and unusually coloured vegetables. “Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights’ was the first variety to sell out, and was followed by French bean ‘Purple Teepee’, climbing bean ‘Violet Podded’ and broad bean ‘Red Epicure’,” said general manager Tim Jeffries. D.T. Brown also sold out of the purple-podded pea ‘Blauwschokker’ and purple-skinned tomato ‘Chocolate Cherry’.
To dial up the dinner plate drama a little further, there were suggestions for some even more unusual crops. James is a fan of electric daisies (Acmella oleracea) - the flowers make your mouth fizz and then go slightly numb (they’re also handy for making pain-relieving mouthwash). Both James and Tom are also keen on cucamelons or mouse melons (Melothria scabra) – grape-size melons which taste like cucumbers – they’re great for giving a twist to salads or nibbles.
The valuable and the plentiful
It’s well worth thinking about how productive a plant is before including it in a small space, the experts noted. Tom used chillies as examples of plants that are well worth giving house room to – one plant can transform thirty meals. Alternatively, pick plants that can be used at more than one stage of their life cycle – coriander, for example, has edible seeds, flowers and leaves.
Other crops, said James, are worth growing because they’re extremely expensive to buy. Saffron (Crocus sativus), for example, is the world’s most expensive spice and yet can be grown from bulbs that cost 25p each – the edible stigmas are ‘tweezered’ from the blooms in October and when stored in an airtight jar will keep for several years
Grow more cheaply
Growing your own is not only healthier, it can be thriftier too and there were lots of money-saving tips for these straitened financial times.
Almost anything can be recycled as a container it seems: Alys recommended wine boxes or other wooden boxes rubbed with beeswax and reinforced with corner brackets for growing winter salads while Tom swore by his blue tray technique - stackable lightweight trays used to store mushrooms in supermarkets, lined with pierced bin-liners and filled with compost.
The National Trust suggested putting drainage holes in plastic carriers, filling them with peat-free compost and putting them into decorative jute bags for planting up with herbs. They also turned wellington boots into flower pots by filling them with alternating layers of grit and compost and drilling planting holes into the foot and leg.
Later in the year, Alys uses plumber’s piping and bubble wrap to make frames to protect plants.
Rather than buying expensive commercial seed, visitors were encouraged to seek out supplies in health food stores and supermarkets. Stems of lemon grass will root in water; dried peas can be used for pea shoots and popcorn kernels planted in compost in the dark will provide a sweet surprise!
Marcus Eyles from The Garden Store highlighted some of his favourite products for the vegetable plot. Slug Gone wool pellets deter slugs and act as plant feed while the SeedSava ensures that seeds are evenly spaced with less wastage when they are sown.
The next Edible Garden Show will be at Alexandra Palace, London in 2014, www.theediblegardenshow.co.uk