TV presenter, award-winning designer and gardening guru James Wong is on a mission. He wants to convert us from growing bland and boring crops to cultivating exciting and exotic ingredients that are just as easy to grow. He’s also discovered that some of our most beautiful garden plants, such as dahlias and daylilies, are actually edible. This means you can decorate your flower beds with them during the summer, then add to your recipes in autumn and winter. And to prove it, he's sharing a delicious recipe for Creamy Dahlia “yam” and Nutmeg Soup.
To find out more about what we can grow and how to use these exotic plants in our kitchens, we asked James to spill the beans...
What inspired you to write your new book, the Homegrown Revolution?
I have always found it strange that while we Brits are happy to embrace eating new and exciting ingredients, when it comes to growing them we somehow feel we must limit ourselves to the same handful of fruit and veg we have been growing since the Second World War. I was frustrated by all the wonderful flavours people were missing out on simply because they lacked the information and availability of gourmet crops that rival spuds and sprouts for flavour, yield and ease-of-cultivation. I decided to write the book and teamed up with Suttons Seeds, who have made the seeds and plants I've included in my book available to everyone.
Do you think your early life in Malaysia gives you a different perspective on growing-your-own?
I’ve been lucky enough to have been exposed to a really varied range of ingredients and gardening techniques, which has given me a slightly unconventional view of certain plants. Daylilies, for example, are seen by Malaysians primarily as a stir-fry ingredient and the idea of cultivating them as an ornamental is often seen as a little bit wacky.
From the fruit and veg in your new book, which plants would you recommend for an absolute beginner?
New Zealand yams, Inca Berries and Cucamelons are all pretty foolproof and require the absolute minimum amount of work, they suffer from few pests and diseases, and will give you a quick return on your time and effort. They are all planted indoors from seed (Inca berries & Cucamelons) or sets (New Zealands Yams) in spring and set outside after all risk of frost is over. Water them well and keep them moist for the first week or two and you can then forget about them until harvest time.
Are any crops okay to grow in pots, on a patio or balcony?
More than 50 per cent of the area of my trial ground (ie, my,ordinary suburban garden) is either decked or paved so I have been forced to grow almost everything in pots or troughs – so yes! In fact for many root crops, container cultivation is the best possible method of growing as it minimizes the effort needed to dig your harvest crop and even reduces kitchen cleaning and prep time as potting mix is far easier to wash off than soil, especially if you garden on heavy clay like me. The book sets out lists of plants that can be grown in any location, from edible houseplants for tiny flats to plants for larger outdoor plots. When creating the book and seed range I was insistent that this would be a revolution anyone can take part in – hence the options for any size of garden and skill level, plus the cost has been kept as low as possible.
How long did it take to research and grow all the crops for your book?
2012 will be my third year of trials, and everything in the book has been personally grown by me to assess its flavour, yield, ease of cultivation and aesthetic value. I have tested my crops over the two worst winters and most miserable summers in years, with a minimal budget and less than half a days work a week to maintain them. This "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen" policy means that anything that has worked for me should work for anyone.”
Can I start growing anything now or should I wait till the spring?
Of course you can! Loads of things like elephant garlic and chop suey greens are best planted right now. It's also a great time to plant fruit trees and bushes, like a delicious Asian pear or sticky-sweet Juneberry. As the nights get colder you can even retreat indoors with the help of house plants to create an edible interiorscape.
As an award-winning garden designer, can you give us any tips on how to make a garden more beautiful?
The number one rule is to pick beautiful crops. Plants like dahlias, fuchsias, amaranthus, cannas and daylilies are mostly known as pretty outdoor ornamentals, but in their countries of origin they are much more familiar as food crops, such as tea-time biscuit ingredients (canna tubers) and donut filling (jam made from fuchsia berries). Even crops that have not yet made it into our gardens as ornamentals, like the technicoloured shades of quinoa, will easily blend into the flower border with the most vibrant ornamentals, so no one will ever imagine you’re growing your own.
What is your favourite recipe from the book?
It’s got to be Dahlia ‘yam’ soup, made from the deliciously sweet, potato-like roots of the common garden dahlia, which has a wonderful and strangely familiar nutty, ‘comfort food’ flavour. I recommend the large flowered ‘cactus’ forms as these generally have the largest tubers, but all dahlia varieties are edible. However, there’s a significant variation in flavours between them, some being lovely and creamy while others are watery and insipid, and as they have only ever been selected for the look of their flowers, just have a go and see if your border contains the world’s finest. Don’t eat dahlia tubers straight from the garden centre, though, as they will probably have been treated with chemicals. Wait till the flowers have bloomed and then dig them up for your recipes.
Recipe for Creamy Dahlia yam and nutmeg soup
3 or 4 large dahlia yams (tubers)
A few cloves of garlic (chopped)
Butter for frying
Chicken or vegetable stock
Parsley and nutmeg
Peel and slice the dahlia yams, and toss them in a tablespoon of salt to remove the excess moisture. Leave them to drain through a colander or sieve for about 30 minutes and then give them a good rinse to wash off the salt.
Squeeze out the remaining water. Dice the yams and sauté them with the onions and garlic in a little butter until tender, before simmering the whole lot in chicken or vegetable stock and milk for about 10 minutes.
Sprinkle with chopped parsley and ground nutmeg and add a good glug of double cream. Continue to simmer for another 10 minutes.
Blitz until smooth and serve drizzled with home-grown saffron oil (olive oil bubbled with powdered saffron threads for a minute or two).
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Zia Allaway, Garden Expert
View all posts by Zia Allaway, Garden Expert