Forget carrots and potatoes, gardeners could sample more exotic plants, says celebrity botanist James Wong. He talks to Mary Griffin.
James Wong is waging a war on boring vegetable patches.
He wants to gather up the multitude of spider plants in UK homes and replace them with vanilla grass.
He wants gardeners with greenhouses to think outside the box, ditching their cucumbers to make room for cucamelons.
Never heard of them? Join the queue. Visiting the Edible Garden Show at Stoneleigh Park last weekend, James drew crowds of traditional gardeners as well as enthusiastic first-timers who all wanted to hear more about what they could be growing in their pots and plots.
After making his name with the BBC series How To Grow Your Own Drugs, Wong is carrying on his mission to breathe new life into Britain’s edible gardens, persuading gardeners to think more creatively about what they are cultivating.
The 31-year-old believes gardeners are missing out on exciting new plants because they’ve become stuck in a “grow-your-own timewarp of ‘dig for victory’ style veg”.
He says: “Grow-your-own is booming, but that’s mostly beans and carrots.
“What about the more than 2,500 interesting, edible plant species that grow happily in the UK?”
Instead of growing carrots and potatoes that can be bought cheaply at the shops, James wants to convince gardeners to try growing foods that can’t be found on the shop shelves or, when they can be found, are very expensive.
And it’s not just about gardens. He wants to revolutionise house plants, patio pots and window boxes too.
He says: “For some reason there’s this horticultural apartheid where people think everything that’s edible has to be grown outdoors and everything e grow indoors has to be ornamental.
“That’s not true. One of the main deciding factors for plants to grow indoors is size.
“So cinnamon isn’t going to make a house plant because it’s a big tropical tree.
“But cardomom will do very well. Cardomom pods in the UK are cheap but grow it for its leaves because they are almost unbuyable here.
“They have a flavour that’s a cross between cardomom pods, cinnamon and cloves. So it’s a ready mixed Christmassy scent in a leaf.”
He adds: “If you want to have a go at growing your own with your kids, don’t grow cress!
“Any plant with edible leaves, from purple borage to dill, will produce a microbreed which is much more exciting than cress.
To accompany James’ new Homegrown Revolution book, Suttons Seeds has launched a new range of seeds, bulbs and plug plants for experimental gardeners, all of which have been tried and tested in James’ small London garden.
Here he shares some of his favourites.
VANILLA GRASS – the perfect edible house plant
An indoor plant which look like aspidistra and likes to be kept in a sunny position. A packet of vanilla pods will cost about £4.99 but two leaves are roughly equivalent to one pod.
You can wrap leaves around chicken and deep fry or use them as a cook foil to add flavour to fish.
It can also be sliced finely and added to stir fries or curries.
SAFFRON CROCUS – a valuable plant that’s perfect for a window box
A beautiful crocus-like flower which blooms when nothing else is out.
Don’t destroy the flowers. Get a pair of tweezers to get the saffron from the red centres.
CHILEAN GUAVA – good looking, great tasting and low maintenance
Also known as the New Zealand cranberry, strawberry myrtle and sometimes marketed as the “Tazziberry”. It looks like a blueberry but tastes like a wild strawberry.
CUCAMELONS – they look like mini watermelons and taste like cucumbers
Stick the cucamelons in a bowl like you would with olives and they make a cucumber flavoured snack.
They can be used in the same way as traditional cucumbers. Put them in salads, pickle them, or explore their cocktail-enhancing prowess
MUSHROOMS – an ideal crop to grow indoors
Even if you have no outdoor space and you’ve got a basement flat with no windows you can grow mushrooms. You might think you need to have logs, dowels and drills, but the best thing for oyster mushrooms to grow on is paper.
Get hold of a phone book and use that. Or try an old paper bag soaked in water. You can buy spores online for a couple of quid and sprinkle them in between the pages.