Enjoyable and Inspiring Talk, and How This Could Apply to My Own Garden.

James Wong signing his book “James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution” at Writtle College on 15th November

I bought James Wong’s book at a talk he gave last night at Writtle College as part of the “Edible Essex” campaign, part of the Rural Community Council of Essex and sponsored by the Big Lottery Local Food Scheme and Essex County Council. I have blogged about the foraging day I went on a few months ago, which was also part of the Edible Essex campaign. The James Wong talk was free, and of course I bought his book “James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution” to have it signed on the evening, though I’d have saved a few quid if I’d ordered it from Amazon. (I don’t really mind, because I know what it’s like trying to sell books.)

To a certain extent, James was preaching to the semi-converted in me. Now that I no longer have an allotment and my garden is somewhat overshadowed, I have to be choosy about what I grow, so it makes sense to grow things which are difficult or impossible to grow in the shops. I also need things which are neglect-tolerant, because I get awfully absent-minded when writing and barely remember to feed the family, let alone cosset my plants.

I haven’t read every word yet, but I’ve had a good skim through and I’m delighted with this book.

James Wong’s book is full of revelations about what is edible, and how to use them, even in a small space like a balcony or a window sill. I have flirted with micro-greens and will do so more now. I was really pleased to see how to deal with olives, though my olive tree hasn’t yet fruited. I was aware that Daylily buds are edible, even put a couple in a stir-fry once, but was worried that perhaps the non-flower parts weren’t edible. I’m much more reassured after reading James Wong’s book.

I have other books on edible flowers but it’s always good to have the same information from different sources, though not if one source is just promulgating the received wisdom from another source; what I want is the personal experience. It reminds me of Bob Flowerdew’s Fruit Book but discusses some different plants. (Mind you, after reading Bob Flowerdew’s book I made some myrtle jam from the fruit (Myrtus communis) and it tasted medicinally of eugenol (like eucalyptus) and the pips looked like maggots and were off-putting. It looked nothing like the illustration in Bob’s book and I wonder if he’d really ever made the jam.).

I had no idea that Shuttlecock fern crooks were edible. I think I’d read it somewhere before, in fiction, but with a feeling of disbelief because I thought they were mildly toxic. I have a shuttlecock fern (I think: the mail-order nursery did a good job of mislabelling a whole batch of plants they sent me so I’m not sure). Perhaps I’ll try them now I know how to prepare them.

Dahlias. OK, I’ve looked at the tubers before and wondered, but it turns out they are edible and were a foodstuff before they became popular as flowers. Trouble is, I haven’t got room to grow them. Another tub, maybe, but that’s another plant to cosset.

Wasabi. I want to grow this, now, thanks James, especially if it grows in shade. The problem is, it apparently needs damp too, something which isn’t a feature of the Essex climate.

New Zealand Yams is another thing I’d like to grow, but again, I don’t have anywhere to grow them.

I was chuffed to find that the Calamondin oranges are actually used when green as limes because I recently bought one heavily reduced from the supermarket because it was on its best before date (seriously!). I was going to use the little oranges in windfall marmalade, but I’m a tad worried about pesticides as it’s supposed to be an ornamental. I ought, as James Wong puts it, to allow it to “detox” for six months to a year. But those little oranges do look rather tempting.

The Japanese honeysuckle on my fence has now had a stay of execution. I never knew I could use the flowers in tea.

I have grown or am currently growing quite a few of the plants in the book. I have grown Physalis, and like them, but they were leggy and unproductive when I grew them. Perhaps I was too kind to them. I also grew a dwarf form, but the fruit were dwarf too, which annoyed me. I grow tomatillos but I’m not sure about the flavour. It’s lemony, but to me has undertones of washing up liquid. I made some chutney with one crop but didn’t really like it. I might persist with them and get to like them. (I used not to like courgettes but love them now.) I knew Houttuynia cordata was edible, and used to grow it, but the smell is just revolting to me, sort of dank, but I feel the same way about Vietnamese coriander, coriander itself, and even jasmine, so I think it’s a personal antipathy. Houttuynia grows so easily it can be invasive.

I have wanted a tea bush for years. It wasn’t until a trip to the Eden Project that I realised they will grow here, though I fear it may be a little hot and dry in Essex.

James Wong’s book is a revelation in that there are far more interesting and edible plants available than I was aware of, things which are garden ornamentals or houseplants, or just easy to grow. I wish my garden was big enough to grow all these shrubs and plants which are hardy in the UK but which have, by chance, fallen out of favour. And I miss my allotment. I really, really miss my allotment. I keep telling myself that I don’t need an allotment, that I can barely keep up with the garden maintenance now that I spend so much time writing, but then I get a hankering to grow these interesting things and wish I had more space.

I’d like to have grown more squashes this year, because the Halloween pumpkins, whilst edible, aren’t exactly the tastiest.

I’d like somewhere good to grow my runner beans, peas, mange tout peas, and asparagus peas, asparagus and big, sprawling herbs, and a couple of apple trees, and a Merryweather damson (which I grew on my old allotment and which fruited prolifically the year after we moved).  But it’s cheaper to go to the supermarket at closing time and buy a lot of this stuff. I can only eat so much and the rest of the family think it’s weird food. So it doesn’t make sense to have an allotment, or so I keep telling myself.

A quick look round my garden today (very quick because it’s cold, that horrible damp creeping cold):-

Watercress. I don’t think of this as being particularly unusual, except, I suppose, not many people grow it. This is seeded onto Hydroleca in a jumble sale jug. I think it looks attractive like that and it seems to grow quite well on the Hydroleca. It self seeded into the Hydroleca that I stand my pots on when some sprigs from a supermarket packet that I’d grown on in compost set seed. I did this last year, hoping it would overwinter, but it died. I sowed some self-saved seed this spring, but it did nothing all summer and has only now decided to start growing. It’s not enough to make soup with but lifts a boring salad. There are no sheep or liverflukey snails nearly so I hope it’s safe to eat raw (unlike wild-gathered watercress).

Figs. Again, not something I’d have said was that unusual. I grow mine in big tubs and ought to take these off because in theory they will be killed over winter, but I’m going to leave them and see what happens as the tree is in a protected place.

James mentioned Gautheria procumbens in his book. Mine has been in position several years and the berries look rather moth-eaten (or is that slug-munched). Not very appetising.

This year I planted a relative, Gautheria shallon. I see a herb that I bought and have forgotten the name and use of has decided to trespass on my poor plant. I didn’t know this herb was so invasive.

I have the horrible feeling that my hardy kiwis have been ruined by this dreadful summer. I hope not. I must get out and tidy up. These I do think of as unusual and surprisingly neglected. I am so pleased I picked these up at the RHS Hyde Hall spring plant fair. I also bought a Lonicera caerulea edulis but found I need a pollinator, and James Wong said he tasted one variety and didn’t rate it, being rather bitter. I’ll have to see what this one turns out like. I don’t absolutely need a pollinator, so I’ll perhaps wait until I’ve tasted a fruit before going out of my way to find a suitable mate.

Not at all like the ordinary strawberries, they’re quite pippy and have a sharp yet sweet almost candyfloss taste. I like munching on them as they ripen.

Something which I don’t think that unusual is Alpine strawberries. I grow these on my scree bed which is where my lawn was, and they self seed obligingly (I think the ants have something to do with it.) I have wild English strawberries too, which send runners out everywhere and which I’m beginning to get a little tired of (I obviously need a wood). Their fruit is even smaller. The fruits in this photo were sharper than in the summer, but a tasty snack anyway.

Quince. Again, rather surprised this was included, though I suppose it’s not grown widely. This was the first tree I planted when we moved here, it took a while to fruit, and I’m a bit disappointed. It’s a Meeches Prolific, supposedly. I was desperate to have quinces because someone once gave me some and I loved the smell and made a gorgeous jelly. I should have checked the growth habit, which appears to be sprawling (I assumed it would be like an apple or a pear.) It’s in the way, it leans away from my neighbour’s extension, but worst of all, it’s not as fragrant as the ones I had all those years ago. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the variety. I know the soil round here is good for quinces because some other people grow them. If I had a big garden, the tree could grow as it pleases and would have made a good kids’ den. As it is, I’m wondering if it’s worth its space.

Sweet Cicely. I love this plant. Pretty as Queen Anne’s Lace, lovely ferny leaves which apparently act as a sweetener, though I’ve not tried them in cooking because I feared that the liquorice flavour might be intrusive in say, rhubarb. I like chewing on the green seed heads. It’s a decorative plant well worth growing for its looks alone and this is a second flush of growth.

Not edible, just very pretty today. This is a hardy bromiliad. I wish pineapples were as hardy.

Not edible, but included just because it’s looking rather good, a hardy bromeliad Fasicularia bicolour.

On my wish list are New Zealand Jam, quinoa, and Peruvian Ground Apple, amongst other things to try. I have two big misgivings. One is that instinctive visceral suspicion I have with foods that I think of as inedible if not downright poisonous. This can take some effort to overcome. And the other is that with some unusual vegetables, I feel they’re often not eaten for a reason. I grow purple orach. (Once you have it and let it self-seed, you seem to have it forever. I hope.) I can’t say I was gastronomically impressed by this. I shall try these things in small quantities first and see if I really like them before making a real effort to grow them or give them precious garden space.


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