London 4

I don’t generally watch Gardeners’ World these days, but two weeks ago they broadcast a special edition (episode 20 in this year’s series) as part of the BBC’s Big British Asian Summer, exploring South Asian influences on British gardens. Monty Don ‘hosted’ the show from the stunning gardens of Europe’s first traditional Hindu temple, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in London. The stonework for the temple itself was all carved in India, then brought to London to be assembled. Flowers, particularly the sacred lotus, are represented throughout the decorative motifs. Mountains of flowers are used in the temple’s religious ceremonies, and I was intrigued to learn that – in India – there are businesses based around recycling temple flowers into products such as incense sticks, soaps, and eco-packaging, to reduce their environmental impact. At the London temple, the gardens are a fusion of a European parterre-style design, with Indian motifs, colourful flowers, and a delightful lack of symmetry.

Also in London (at King’s Cross), the new Aga Khan Centre is dedicated to education, knowledge, cultural exchange and insight into Muslim civilisations. It includes 6 stunning Islamic gardens, exploring the breadth of the historic Islamic world, from southern Europe through into the Indian subcontinent. According to Gardeners’ World, the gardens will be open to the public from 22nd September. Looking at the website, you will probably need to book a tour. It looks like there should also be an exhibition on Gardens and Wellbeing from an Islamic perspective (the website isn’t entirely up to date…).

Bottlegourd flower

Beautiful as these curated spaces are, I was more interested (of course) in the allotments visited during the show. At the Walsall Road allotments in Birmingham, 11 of the 104 plots are tended by people with South Asian ancestry. A gentleman referred to as Jas (my one beef about the programme is that – whilst the plants all get their names printed on the screen, the human guests do not!) was growing the vegetables his Bangladeshi parents grew up with, including lab lab beans and bottle gourds. His bottle gourd growing setup was impressive – a kind of low pergola, which the vines scramble over, allowing the bottle gourds to hang down. Apparently they are really tasty, fresh from the plant. Garden Organic’s Sowing New Seeds project is one of the best places to get UK growing advice for bottle gourds and other exotic crops from Asia and Africa. Jas was also attempting taro, which is more often grown as an ornamental in this country.

There was also a Sikh couple from the Punjab, with a lovely allotment they visit every day. They were growing gourds, fenugreek, coriander, spinach, onions and chickpeas (sholay). Their advice for chickpeas was not to do too much digging or feeding. In richer soils, they said, the plant often dies, or refuses to flower. Also, in a wet summer, you’re not going to get any chickpeas! The trick, apparently, is to cut off the first flower head, as the plant will then bush out and produce more flowers, which should result in more chickpeas. Their gourds were doing so well that they had plenty to donate to their Gurdwara (temple).

Also featured in the show was Raghbir Singh Sanghera, a retired Sikh living in Derby, who made the news this summer for growing a record-breaking cucumber. Some of the news coverage I saw included some rather disparaging comments from British horticulturalists that this wasn’t a proper cucumber, but rather an Armenian cucumber. Who cares? It’s a world-record-holding Armenian cucumber now! Mr Sanghera built a little prayer room next to the cucumber, and prayed next to it every morning. He has also been donating some of his produce to his Gurdwara.

Radish seed pods

At the Scotchman Road allotments in Bradford, a group of women meet every Monday to garden, and socialise together. They were growing all kinds of things, including spinach beet, calendula and nasturtiums, and the programme focused on their radish pods. They harvest the seed pods green, at which point they can be used in salads, or cooked in a potato-radish pod curry, called Aloo Moongre. It’s a long time since I’ve grown radishes (we’re not overly fond of the roots), but I have just down some in the hope they will bolt and produce some pods for me to cook with. I sowed a summer variety, but apparently a winter one would also work:

(There is a heritage radish variety bred specially for producing pods – Rat’s Tail Radish. Apparently the pods of different varieties have slightly different flavours, so if the first one you try doesn’t quite hit the spot, try another!)

The Bradford ladies also had a dye plant – Eupatorium cannabinum, hemp agrimony – which they were cultivating for its seeds. Apparently they give off an indigo-coloured dye, which they had used to tie-dye homemade shopping bags. Clearly they are my kind of ladies 🙂

I loved most of the programme (although Joe mansplaining how to grow bananas to an Indian woman was aggravating), and I have skipped over the ornamental sections, which included trips to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh (to look at plants with a South Asian origin) and Kew (focusing on orchids). It was wonderful to see a positive programme about immigration and its benefits to British culture, and to realise that gardening is one thing we all have in common, and can happily share (a theme I have talked about before, in the context of Palestine).

SE Asian Garden 1