The Bookazine

Fresh from wondering where my writing career is going, I thought it might be fun to revisit some of the places it has been. In 2007 I was just starting out as a freelance writer, having been made redundant from my job as a techie. I’d been blogging for several years, and was slowly getting published (and paid!) online and off.

In December I received an email from Dennis Publishing, saying that they were looking for someone to write “a one-off gardening guide to growing your own fruit and veg aimed at 5-12 year-olds”. I had been recommended by a friend of mine, who knew that I was looking for freelance work. After a short email conversation, the people at Dennis asked me to meet them at their offices in London for a chat.

At that point in time, I was slightly obsessed by the use of coffee grounds in the garden. Starbucks were doing their “Grounds for the garden” scheme, where they put their waste coffee grounds back into the packets for gardeners to take away from free. But I didn’t live anywhere near a Starbucks that was participating, so I was frustrated in getting my hands on some.

Arriving in the big smoke with some time to kill, I stopped off in a Starbucks, and they had a basket of coffee grounds by the till. I picked one up (had I not had to carry it all the way back to Oxfordshire, I would have taken more). Which meant, of course, that I took it into my interview with me.

Coffee grounds

So I’m sitting in an interview in London with two guys from Dennis Publishing, and there’s a packet of coffee grounds on the table in front of me. I think they were too polite to mention it! I do remember saying that big words were out, because “every time you use one you lose 10% of your audience”* and suggesting that the bookazine (they’re called magbooks now) be printed on nice glossy paper to make it easy to brush the dirt off.

It must have gone well, because we got to the point where the fee was negotiated (which involved me not saying anything, and them coming up with a figure that was more than I expected) and I was released back into the world with my compost grounds. I got the train back from London and celebrated with a drink in a pub in Oxford before going home.

There was just one thing… all the writing had to be done by 1st February. So after Christmas we began work in earnest and meeting the deadline was no problem. I don’t remember too much about the process, to be honest, except that the magbook was to come with 10 packets of free seeds, so I had to write about the plants that would be included, and the chosen layout meant that I had to come up with three whole pages about cress, which led to some hilarity, some head scratching and some more unusual edibles making it into the book.

I thought about including the whole section here, but it’s 3000+ words, so it’s a little long. Here’s the last 500 or so (as I drafted it, not the final, printed version. I don’t remember much editing.):

Other varieties to try

Another vegetable that is often grown in the same was as cress is mustard. Mustard seedlings have a ‘hot’, spicy flavour. They grow more quickly than cress, so if you want to have mustard and cress ready for harvesting at the same time then you have to sow your mustard seeds three or four days before you sow your cress seeds.

Mustard and cress have strong flavours. If you want to try something with a more mild flavour, you can sow oil seed rape seeds. Oil seed rape is a crop that farmers grow – you can see the yellow flowers in fields in the summer – but the seedlings make a nice salad vegetable too.

The sort of cress grown to eat as seedlings is sometimes called Garden cress. There are some different plants that are also called cress.

Watercress is a plant that likes damp soil – it’s often found growing wild by rivers and streams. It’s very good for you, with lots of vitamins and minerals. You can eat the leaves raw in salads and sandwiches, or you can cook them – watercress is often made into soup.

You can grow watercress from seed, or you can buy some watercress from the supermarket. If you put some of the stems into a glass of water they will grow roots – and then you can pot them up into compost. Stand the pot in a tray of water, and keep it topped up – watercress doesn’t like dry compost. You can keep your watercress indoors, or put it outside in the garden. It doesn’t mind cold weather, but it will lose its leaves if there’s a frost.

You could also try growing Land cress (also known as American cress or winter cress). It looks and tastes a lot like watercress, but it doesn’t need as much water. Land cress is a useful plant to grow through the winter, because it doesn’t mind cold weather. Sow land cress seeds in July or August for a winter harvest. When you harvest land cress, take a few leaves at a time from each plant – if you take all the leaves off the plants might die. In the spring your land cress plants will flower and make seeds, and then the leaves start to taste nasty and aren’t nice to eat, so put the plants on the compost heap.

Watercress and land cress are both easy plants to save your own seeds from.

You can also buy seeds for a very unusual plant called Para cress. Para cress is a perennial plant. There are two sorts – one with yellow flowers and one with yellow and red flowers. The second sort is sometimes called the Eyeball plant, or the Peek-a-boo plant, because the flowers look like monster’s eyes! It’s also called the Toothache plant because chewing the leaves makes your mouth a bit numb and can help if you have a toothache. The leaves are eaten in salads, but the flavour is quite strong so you wouldn’t want to eat too many in one go!”

You’ll notice I was ahead of James Wong and his ‘electric daisies’ by a few years 🙂 Paracress is also the ‘alien eyeballs’ of Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs, my latest book, which is about unusual edible plants and the people who choose to grow them.

Alien eyeball

By the time the growing season came around, Growing vegetables is fun! was appearing on shelves in bookshops, and even in Tesco, and rapidly sold out. The feedback I got was that it went down very well with kids of all ages. A second edition was brought out in 2009, and a third in 2010.

Bookazine in Borders

Looking at my copy this morning, lots of good stuff went into the bookazine. It starts by talking about environmental issues such as food miles, climate change and pesticides, and touches on healthy eating. It covered sowing seeds, making paper pots and other forms of recycling, pests and diseases, companion planting and crop rotation. Composting and mulching, feeding plants, and garden wildlife were also included, and their were pages for drawing pictures or sticking in photos, and making notes.

In short, it was everything you could hope for in a beginner’s gardening book, in a glossy magazine format with cartoon drawings 🙂

So I’m glad to see that – although it’s out of print – the third edition is available on Kindle:

*I don’t 100% agree with that statement any more. Although jargon is horrible and makes for hard reading, I don’t think people are scared off by unfamiliar words as long as they’re introduced in context and explained properly. But this was for kids, so plain English was the most appropriate choice.