James Wong

For me, one of the highlights of the Edible Garden Show was James Wong’s talk on ‘Incredible Edibles’. He reckons that he has over 100 species growing in his urban back garden, and he uses his mum’s garden for extra space.

The premise of his talk was that although the demographic of the people growing their own has changed over the last few years (as well as our taste in food), the information on GYO that’s being published in books hasn’t changed in decades. We’re still reading the same advice about crops and techniques that people were being given during the second world war.

James reckons that we would get a far better return on our investment if we ditched the staple crops (which are so cheap and easy to buy) and grew something more exciting instead. Something which is unbuyable, or at least very expensive. He says even the Victorians were more adventurous with their crops than us!

Here are the plants he suggests we grow…

Instead of potatoes, try sweet potatoes (Ipomea batatas). Having tried it, I can’t say I am as convinced as James that they’re easily cropped in the UK (he even suggested using them in a hanging basket), but he did point out that the foliage is an edible green used in oriental cooking. And he had some gorgeously coloured varieties. If I knew where to find a bright purple sweet potato I would definitely give that a go!

Instead of gooseberries, grow cocktail kiwis (Actinidia arguta), also known as the Hardy Kiwi. They don’t have the same growth habit, of course, as kiwis are essentially vining plants that need something to grow against. I have one of these, although it isn’t planted out now. Unless you buy the self-fertile ‘Issai’, you’ll need a pair (one male, one female) to get any fruit. The hardy kiwi has smaller, sweeter fruits, with softer (edible) skins, than the kiwis you’ll find in the shops.

Instead of cabbage grow Japanese wasabi (Wasabia japonica). It’s actually on my list of plants to try, but wasabi is a lot like horseradish – it’s powerful stuff and most people won’t get through that much in a year. It can also be thuggish, and you should be careful where you plant it – although James recommends it as a ground cover plant for dry shade. The leaves are edible as well as the roots, and as James points out it’s very expensive to buy (and my research suggests that a lot of the ‘wasabi’ on sale in supermarkets isn’t really wasabi).

Instead of onions grow saffron. Certainly a more expensive crop, and a very low-maintenance one! And if you grow your own you may be able to develop a taste for the saffron martinis James says are mildly psychoactive, due to the different chemicals the alcohol extracts from the saffron ;). Suttons currently have saffron corms on offer.

Instead of mint grow stevia. According to James, stevia has just been legalised in the EU. It’s not quite as easy to grow as mint – it needs overwintering indoors. I bought a plant from Jekka’s Herb Farm last summer and managed to kill it over the winter (I got distracted by the builders), so I have ordered myself some more from Suttons.

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is about 300 times sweeter than sugar, and can be used in drinks and baking as a low calorie sweetener.

And James is a big fan of the toothache plant (Acmella oleracea), sometimes sold as paracress, which is the botanical equivalent of pop rocks – it has a fizzy sensation, then numbs the mouth, but is edible and adds a … different… element to salads. Apparently Heston Blumenthal is also a fan! It’s grown as a frost-tender annual in the UK, but is a perennial in its native climate.

I managed to pick up a packet of seeds of it at the show on Friday – it’s been on my list to grow since I wrote about it in the Growing Vegetables is Fun bookazine, among the more everyday plants. James calls them Electric Buttons, and the flowers look so unusual that they’re a fun plant for kids.

Hand out

After rattling through that lot, James had a treat for the audience – a selection of unusual flowers and leaves to nibble on:

  • Lippa dulcis, the Aztec sweet leaf
  • Mertensia maritima, the oyster plant
  • Stevia
  • Electric buttons
  • An edible begonia, with an apple-like flavour. I don’t know which plant this is, there was no Latin name given.

James is gradually putting more information about his incredible edibles up on his website.

While I love unusual plants, I have dedicated more space in the garden this year to things that are easy to care for and will provide a reliable harvest that we will definitely eat. What do you think of James’ manifesto – can you see yourself replacing traditional staples with expensive exotic crops?