It’s World Book Day, which seems an opportune moment to announce that my new book, Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs has been accepted by Smashwords, and is now available to preview! The official publication date is 1st May 2014.
Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs tells the story of some unusual edible plants and the people who choose to grow them. It’s a guide book to the world of unusual edible plants, whether they are old or new, rarely grown or from somewhere far flung. It looks at the history of plant hunters moving these plants around the world, and tells the stories of modern day enthusiasts, showcasing some of the unusual plants you may encounter as you being your own journey into this intriguing world.
It has been a long time in the making, and I’m thrilled to bits that it will soon be published and available for you to read.
Smashwords distribute the book in various formats, including ePub and Kindle. There’s a PDF version if you don’t have an e-reader, and you can also read online at the Smashwords site. They have a system they call the ‘Meatgrinder’ to transform Word files into ebooks, which has been an interesting experience. There were some quirks that only showed up in one format or another; hopefully now all the odd page breaks and badly-rendered accents have disappeared. Over the next few days it should make its way out on pre-order to Apple, Barnes and Nobel, Sony and other places I probably don’t know about yet! Keep an eye out for it in your favourite ebook store (which doesn’t yet include Amazon, but you can order a Kindle version via Smashwords). During the pre-order period you can get your hands on a copy for $2.99; once the book is published I will be raising the price to $3.99 (still a bargain!).
So hop on over to Smashwords to check the book out, and get your copy hot off the virtual presses on 1st May! In the meantime, I am adding related content to the book’s Facebook page and Twitter. If you’re not a fan of either than you can keep an eye on my linklog.
I’m planning on doing a proper press release in due course, but if you’re a member of the press and you’d like to talk to me about the book (or you’re a blogger and you’d like to host me during my virtual book tour
then drop my PR monkey an email
Posted in Blog on Mar 6, 2014 · ∞
Last modified on Mar 6, 2014
Tags: books & unusual.
This month I am hosting the Berry Go Round, a blog carnival devoted to showcasing blog posts about any aspect of planty goodness. The Berry Go Round…
“… covers all thing botanical. That is, featured articles should just be about plants, from cells & chemistry to plant ecology and communities. Pictures can also be submitted whenever a minimum amount of information is given (such as scientific name, family and the like), and recipes may also be featured if the main ingredient is a plant and provided a decent botanical account follows.”
Since I’m hosting I get to pick the theme :) and as the publication date for Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs draws ever closer, I have chosen Unusual Edible Plants. So if you have a blog post on that topic that you’d like to submit to the carnival – or you have a new post forming in your brain as you read this – then bookmark the submission form now. The closing date for entries is 26th March 2014, and I’ll post a round-up by the end of the month.
If you’re new to the Berry Go Round then check out the February round-up, which is all about botanical warfare :)
Posted in Blog on Mar 4, 2014 · ∞
Tags: unusual & carnival.
I’ve done some of my Christmas shopping at the Eden Project for the last few years. Sometimes (like this year) I am lucky enough to be able to go down and do it in person; other years I have to order via their online shop. There are
two three reasons I shop with the Eden Project:
- They’re a charity and I heartily agree with their plant education remit. I think they get the ‘people need plants’ message across very well. It’s also a very nice place to visit, and one that I am happy to support.
- Everything they chose to sell is environmentally-friendly and sustainable and, where possible, locally sourced. You can shop there without feeling guilty.
- And they have some really cool stuff.
Websites at this time of year are crammed with articles telling you what to buy, or what not to buy for the gardener in your life this Christmas, so I’m not going to do that. Instead I am going to tell you what I would like for Christmas :)
One of the Eden Project planting kits, which cost £22.50 and include everything you need to grow Mediterranean wild flowers, sweet peas, or the sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica). It comes neatly packaged in a branded crate, and I’m a sucker for a nice crate.
The Marmalade Gift Set, which includes a pot marmalade and a Meyer Lemon plant in a jute canvas bag for £19. You can choose whether you want a cute bird, chillies, or oranges on the bag.
A nepenthes pitcher plant in a cool little bio dome that should make it a doddle to take care of. I love carnivorous plants, they deal with fungus gnat infestations a treat, but they’re not the easiest things to keep alive.
And if I didn’t already own them, I would also be thrilled to receive a tea plant (£10), a coffee plant (£10) or an olive tree in a pot (£22.50). It’s not like I would refuse to give them house space if someone bought me another one :)
(The last order date for Christmas is 11am on 18th December.)
What are you wishing for this Chrismas?
Posted in Blog on Dec 11, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Dec 11, 2013
When I was writing my dissertation I promised that I would tell you more about it in due course. Indeed, there’s an action on me written into my dissertation – I promised to share a written summary of the results, as well as anything else I thought you might find interesting. And to publish the entire thing as a PDF file for those of you intrepid enough to attempt to read it.
I waited until after the marking process was complete, just in case it was… well, rubbish. It isn’t – I got a Merit mark for it (for a UK Masters degree you get a Pass, Merit or Distinction, with a Distinction being the highest mark). It is, however, written in academic-speak and academic style, so it’s not as easily digested as anything else that I write.
If you would like to read it in all its academic glory, then you can – you can download it here. For the rest of you I will cherry pick the (more) interesting bits. At 15,000 words, blogging the whole thing would take in excess of a fortnight of lengthy posts anyway…. To make it more readable I shall remove the references and put them at the bottom of the blog post, so if you want to see exactly who said what and where, you will have to download the fully-referenced PDF version.
The title, in all its glory, is “Co-production, transformation and transmission of knowledge regarding novel crops amongst digitally-literate homegardeners in the UK”, which means I was interested in how people find information about unusual vegetables online, and what they then do with it.
With the advent of social media, it is now possible to say that – for many people – there is no divide between the online world and the ‘real world’, and that there is nothing particularly unique about what happens in the online environment. Even as far back as 2001, it was becoming apparent that interacting with online communities was a daily occurrence for many internet users; these communities touch on any number of social and cultural interests.
The online community as a whole is divided into many hobby groups and lifestyle-oriented groups; the online gardening community has loose sub-divisions along horticultural lines – the group of gardeners who choose to grow fruit and vegetables, for example, overlaps with the group that concentrates on the cultivation of ornamental plants. Digitally-literate gardeners in the UK now have the option to share experiences, or find help and support, amongst like-minded individuals online.
By ‘gardener’ I am referring here to an individual who cultivates plants in a homegarden, defined by Cleveland and Solieri as a
“supplementary food production system which is under the management and control of household members. In addition to food it may provide herbs, fuel, medicine, fodder, building materials, shade, social or recreational space, and beautification. A household garden can be consumption or market oriented, but at least some of the produce will be consumed by the household.”
Homegardens are usually considered to be adjacent, or close, to the home. In the UK it is common for gardeners who lack a homegarden (or find its dimensions inadequate) to rent an allotment nearby, and indeed they have the legal right to do so. It is estimated that there are 330,000 allotments in the UK, and although demand is variable there is currently a waiting list in place at many allotment sites. Gardeners may therefore take on an allotment some distance from the home, but as its primary function is the same as that of a homegarden, an allotment can be considered to be part of a wider ‘homegarden’ category.
When gardeners choose the crops they wish to cultivate in their homegardens, they are clearly subject to ecological constraints – their choices depend, at least in part, on the species that thrive in the local soil and climatic conditions (although the environment can be manipulated by the use of technology, such as greenhouses, artificial lighting and the application of fertilizers). Autochthonous [local] plants would appear to be a logical choice, given their predisposition to grow successfully in a particular ecological niche, but gardeners aren’t limited to autochthonous plants, and may choose to plant species from further afield, whether they carry familiar species with them as they migrate, or import species from elsewhere.
Eyzaguirre and Linares refer to the trade in germplasm (defined by Ellen and Platten as any kind of propagative plant material) that allows the deliberate (and accidental) introduction of new species. Indeed, humans have moved plants from one area to another throughout history, whether accidentally or by design. As technological advances have allowed us to travel further, seeds have also made longer journeys.
Although there are around 2,500 edible plant species that could be grown in British homegardens, gardeners commonly stick to just twenty, the tried-and-tested favourites with which they are familiar and to which the majority of garden writing has been dedicated since the Second World War. The UK has a limited flora of around 1,500 native plants, those being the species that advanced on to the British Isles as the ice cover retreated at the end of the last ice age. This flora left a “limited palette” of edible plants, which has been added to over time due to contact with cultures from other biomes. Why have some edible species become popular worldwide, grown by farmers and homegardeners alike, while others are barely recognised? My interest here is in the subset of homegardeners who choose to plant species that are not currently grown on a large commercial scale in the UK.
Underutilized plant species are wild or cultivated plants “whose potential has not been fully realized”. The term can be used all-inclusively to cover “local varieties of major crops and agricultural commodities” that are in decline or have been abandoned, but is more useful when used to describe non-commodity crops that are “part of a larger biodiversity portfolio, once more popular and today neglected by users’ groups for a variety of agronomic, genetic, economic, social and cultural factors”. While there may be no prospect of an underutilized species becoming an agricultural commodity in the short-term, it is possible for homegardeners to learn about, source and grow them – I have done so myself. Gardeners with the finances and patience to do so can now source almost any plant they want to grow, and there has been a revival in the mail order market for seeds. Even though the networks for the exchange of germplasm are dominated by commercial producers, informal networks remain important.
There is considerable variation in the nomenclature used to refer to these underutilized crops, with ‘orphan’, ‘abandoned’, ‘new’, ‘neglected’, ‘lost’, ‘underused’, ‘local’, ‘minor’, ‘traditional’, ‘forgotten’, ‘alternative’, ‘niche’, ‘promising’ and ‘underdeveloped’ being some of the synonyms in the literature. These lexical choices carry with them subtle nuances of meaning – compare the implication of agency in ‘abandoned’, and the lack thereof in ‘lost’. Many of these terms would not resonate in the online gardening community; the descriptions I have seen in use on the internet include ‘unusual’, ‘exotic’ and ‘novel’.
Carruthers discussed alternative crops for the UK at a time when there was “overproduction of a number of major commodities” within the European Community, and an economic advantage to replacing those surpluses with commodities that could replace imports or open up new export markets. He describes ‘novelty’ in a crop as resulting from one of four attributes – a new use or byproduct of an existing crop, a reintroduction of a crop previously grown in the UK, an introduction of a crop grown outside the UK or domestication of a plant not previously grown as a crop. This definition seemed to me to be the most comprehensive, whilst making use of a term that was already in use in the online gardening community, and so it was the one I chose to use during the course of my research.
Two of the underutilized crops identified by the National Research Council as having the potential for worldwide cultivation are oca (Oxalis tuberosa Molina) and achocha (Cyclanthera spp). They noted that oca has a large potential appeal to consumers, with brightly-coloured tubers and a pleasant flavour. The plant’s attractive bushy habit, and clover-like leaves, would catch the eye of any gardener. Indeed, oca has been grown as an ornamental plant in Britain for over a hundred years. According to Weaver, oca was introduced as novelty to Europe and the UK, where it was known as ‘American Wood Sorrel’, and in the 1830s a number of devotees held oca-themed dinner parties. Oca was introduced to New Zealand as the ‘New Zealand Yam’, but remains largely unknown outside South America, Mexico and New Zealand. Seed tubers have been available from independent UK seed merchants for over a decade (I bought mine from Real Seeds in 2007), but only started appearing in the catalogues of the major seed companies in 2012.
Achocha is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family that fruits well in subtropical climates and seems to tolerate cold better than its cucurbit relatives. A vigorous climbing plant, achocha is also noted to have potential in the UK, for both its edible fruit and its ornamental qualities. The Heritage Seed Library is a UK-based organization dedicated to the conservation and dissemination of non-commercial crop varieties; it was from them that I sourced my achocha seeds in 2005. The Heritage Seed Library supplies seeds of ‘Lady’s Slipper’ achocha (Cyclanthera pedata Schrad.); it possible to buy seeds of ‘Fat Baby’ achocha (Cyclanthera brachystachya Cogn.) and the ‘Exploding Cucumber’ (Cyclanthera explodens Naudin) from Real Seeds.
I chose to target my research on these two species for a number of reasons. Firstly, the novel crop domain is large and multifaceted (as described above) and given the limited research time available it was necessary to narrow the area to be studied. Secondly, I know from personal experience that UK gardeners grow both of these species, and that although some have been doing so for a number of years, there are always new gardeners trying them for the first time, and some who have given up; the motivations for trying them once may be different from those for continuing to grow them. Lastly, these two species are propagated, grown and used in very different ways, which I hoped would make my research more representative of the novel crop domain as a whole.
I have been a part of the online gardening community for a number of years. Among its members there are people with whom I share common interests, and to whom I am connected via social media and other ‘virtual’ ties. I have pre-existing contacts within the community, and can consider myself to be an ‘insider’, in ethnographic terms. Whilst the origins of ethnobotany lie in examination of the ‘other’, the post-modernist view is that most communities contain enough heterogeneity to give an insider a sense of otherness and detachment whilst conducting research within them. Colic-Peisker offers the opinion that “research now requires us to be conscious of the ways we are involved and engaged with our research participants, and to find strategies for ethically managing that engagement”.
Carruthers, S. P. (ed.). (1986). Alternative Enterprises for Agriculture in the UK. Reading: Centre for Agricultural Strategy, University of Reading.
Cleveland, D.A. and Soleri, D. (1987). Household Gardens as a Development Strategy’. Human Organization, 46(3), 259-270.
Colic-Peisker, V. (2004). Doing ethnography on “one’s own ethnic community”: The experience of an awkward insider. In: L. Hume and J. Mulcock. eds. Anthropologists in the field: Cases in participant observation. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 82-94.
Ellen, R. and Komáromi, R. (2013). Social exchange and vegetative propagation: An untold story of British potted plants. Anthropology Today, 29(1), 3-7.
Ellen, R. and Platten, S.J. (2011). The social life of seeds: The role of networks of relationships in the dispersal and cultural selection of plant germplasm. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 17, 563-584.
Eyzaguirre, P.B. and Linares, O.F. (2001). A New Approach to the Study and Promotion of Home Gardens. People and Plants Handbook, 7, 30-33. WWF-UNESCO-RBG Kew.
Fry, C. (2009). The Plant Hunters. London: Andre Deutsch Ltd.
Fry. C (2013). Kew’s Global Kitchen Cookbook: 101 Recipes Using Edible Plants From Around the World. Richmond: Kew Publishing.
Heritage Seed Library. (2004). Seed Library Catalogue. Ryton: Garden Organic.
Kiehn, M. (2012). Plant Introductions: Historical Sketches 1. Pacific Science, 66(2), 119-125.
Kozinets, R.V. (2009). Netnography: Doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage Publications Limited.
National Research Council (US). Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation. (1989). Lost crops of the Incas: little-known plants of the Andes with promise for worldwide cultivation. Washington. D.C.: National Academy Press.
National Society of Allotment & Leisure Gardeners Ltd. (n.d.) Brief history of allotments [Online] Available from: http://www.nsalg.org.uk/allotment-info/brief-history-of-allotments [Accessed 23rd July 2013].
Padulosi, S. and Hoeschle-Zeledon, I. (2004). Underutilized plant species: what are they? LEISA-LEUSDEN-, 20, 5-6.
Platten, S. (2012). Plant Exchange and Social Performance: Implications for Knowledge Transfer in British Allotments. [Unpublished ms. supplied by Ellen, R. with the permission of the author: 13 March 2013].
Thompson & Morgan (2012). Novel new crop for KG Readers. Kitchen Garden, March 2012, 8.
Uglow, J. S. (2004). A little history of British gardening. London: Chatto & Windus.
Van Wyk, B. (2005). Food plants of the world: An illustrated guide. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.
Weaver, W.W. (2007). You Can Grow Oca! [Online]. Available from: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening/2007-08-01/Hot-to-Grow-Oca.aspx [Accessed 7th March 2013].
Wong, J. (2012). James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Posted in Blog on Dec 2, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Dec 1, 2013
Tags: ethnobotany & unusual.
At some point in the future, I would like a garden with a water feature. A natural swimming pool would be my first choice, but seems unlikely. A fish pond would be lovely – as long as I was also blessed with hours to while away next to it, watching the fishes do their thing.
Of course, the kind of pond in which fish are happy takes some work. I’d need some gadgets to keep the water clear (Joe’s Aquatic World has a good selection of pond filters and pumps to do that job). I’d also need to make sure the fish were protected from these:
My allotment could be home to a small pond or two, although they wouldn’t be the sort in which fish would be happy. But that’s an advantage, in some ways, as it gives me the opportunity to grow some edible pond and bog plants – things that the fishes would be only too happy to nibble on, were the two combined. For a while now I have been pondering which aquatic edibles I would like to grow. For simplicity, and since it won’t be a ‘proper’ pond, I have lumped ‘marginal’ plants that like growing around the edges of ponds in with the bog plants, which like sitting in soggy soil….
The advice given for watercress, Nasturtium officinale, used to be that it should be grown in running water, and that’s certainly how it was grown in the traditional watercress beds. You do need to be careful that the water in which its grown is not contaminated with liver flukes, which have a complicated lifecycle that involves a stage in water and a stage in a nice, warm, mammalian host. It’s an issue where the water abuts a pasture, but not really in a back garden. Still, running water is a little tricky (although I have seen one enterprising set-up with watercress grown in a pot under a leaky hosepipe…). Nowadays we know that watercress can be grown anywhere, as long as you keep it nice and damp, so it’s a bog plant (B) option.
My wasabi, Wasabia japonica, may also prefer being upgraded from being in a dryish container to a bog garden, although no doubt then it would be even more of a slug magnet.
I have always wanted to try growing water chestnuts. The proper Chinese ones are Eleocharis dulcis; it looks as though they can be grown as a pond plant (P) or bog plant. The Water caltrop, Trapa natans, can be grown as a water chestnut substitute, and is a pond plant happy in water up to 2 feet (60 cm) deep.
Radix, with his joy of spreading unusual edibles far and wide, is keen for me to try:
- Sagittaria latifolia (P), Wapato or duck potato
- Aponogeton distachyos (P), Water Hawthorn or Waterblommetjie, which I think I’ve already killed off once, in a bucket
- Lycopus asper (B), Rough bugleweed, a US native
- Houttuynia cordata (B), Chameleon plant, an ornamental and very pungent herb with a revved-up coriander flavour
- Cyperus longus (B,P), Galingale
- Butomus umbellatus (B,P), Flowering rush
- Wolffia arrhiza (P), Duckweed, although you hardly need a pond as it’s tiny and will grow in a beaker of water
- And Zizania aquatica or Z. latifolia (P), two types of wild rice that might be a bit more successful than my mobile rice paddies a few years ago.
- Ipomoea aquatica (P,B), Morning glory (!) is a tender (and tasty) aquatic plant I could try during the summer months
- As is Persicaria odorata (B), Vietnamese coriander, which would be happy in nice warm, damp soil.
Garden Organic list Sweet Flag, Acorus calamus
(B), Water mint, Mentha aquatica
(B), Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria
(B), Bogbean, Menyanthes trifoliata
(B,P), Yellow water lily, Nuphar lutea
(P), Reedmace, Typha
spp. (B) and Common reed, Phragmites australis
(B,P) in their factsheet on Edible Aquatic Plants
, which is only available to members. Some of those would be far too large for a container pond.
PFAF include gunnera (Gunnera tinctoria) in The Edible Pond and Bog Garden, although I suspect eating it would be a step too far or most people! There’s some other plants on the list that I haven’t heard of, but I think it will be best to start relatively simply and see what works before branching out into anything too unusual.
Which aquatic edible plants have you tried growing?
Posted in Blog on Jul 5, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Jul 5, 2013
Tags: unusual & allotment.
Way back in 2008 I reported on the arrival of the Miracle Berry (Synsepalum dulcificum) in the UK. Whilst not in itself particularly sweet, miracle berries contain a glycoprotein called Miraculin. When Miraculin is combined with an acid (something with a low pH), it becomes able to activate the sweet receptors on your tongue – it literally changes the way your taste buds react to sour foods.
I still haven’t had the opportunity to grow a Miracle Berry plant (they are tender and would need to be kept as houseplants), and until the weekend I hadn’t tasted miracle berries either. But I was invited to a dinner party on Saturday night (in itself a rare occurrence these days), and as part of the post-prandial portion of the evening, we had some fun with miracle berry powder (from miracleberry.co.uk, and made from freeze-dried berries).
We had lemon quarters and lime quarters, and it’s quite an odd sensation to suck either of those after rolling miracle berry powder around in your mouth. You get the full force of the flavour – but it’s sweet, not sour. You’re sitting there expecting your mouth to pucker and… nothing happens.
I don’t imagine they have much of a future beyond being a novelty, but apparently they are used in their tropical homeland to sweeten sour dishes. There has been some talk about them being used as a low-calorie sweetener, but since they only work on sour things it’s not something that would be any use stirred into a cup of tea!
Have you tried miracle berries?
Posted in Blog on May 13, 2013 · ∞
Tags: unusual & fruit.
Spalding Bulbs have been kind enough to send me three pepino (Solanum muricatum) plants to grow this year, a ‘Lost Crop of the Incas’ that I have yet to try. The pepino (also known as pepino dulce, poire-melon and melon pear) is a low-growing, evergreen shrub native to South America. Here in the UK, it needs winter protection as it is frost-sensitive.
The fruits are reported to taste like a slightly sweet cucumber when unripe, and melon with a hint of pear when they’re ripe. Immature fruits can be cooked, but the pepino is mainly used raw.
Ripe fruits are large, conical and yellow with jagged purple streaks. They are very sensitive to bruising, and need to be handled with care. They don’t lend themselves to long-distance transportation, so you’re unlikely to find them on supermarket shelves.
Pepinos don’t like high temperatures (so don’t grow them in the greenhouse) and can’t withstand drought, so keep the water supply steady. Don’t over fertilize them, as that encourages leafy growth and leads to poor fruit set. Their flowers don’t need to be pollinated, so you can keep just one, although self- or cross-pollination will increase the amount of fruit. You’ll need to watch out for the normal roster of pests – aphids, spider mites and whitefly.
Pepino fruits don’t ripen all at once, which is great for a gardener as the plants crop over a long time. They are usually peeled, as the skin can be bitter. Seeds aren’t always produced, but they are small and edible and easy to remove if you don’t like them. Ripe fruits have similar levels of vitamin C to citrus. They don’t respond well to being refrigerated, so they are best eaten fresh.
If you’d like to try growing pepinos this year, Spalding Bulbs are selling packs of 3 plants of Melon Pear ‘Pepino Gold’ for £10.25.
Spalding Bulbs gave me two packs of plants – one to keep and one to give away. As pepino is “highly suited to culinary experimentation”, I have given the second set to Carl Legge. Hopefully he’ll have some new pepino recipes to share with us later in the year!
Most of the details given above are taken from ‘Lost Crops of the Incas’ – there’s not much written about pepino cultivation in the UK! Maybe we can change that this year ;) Apparently the fruit characteristics are affected by cultivation conditions, but no one really knows how that works….
National Research Council. 1989. Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
Posted in Blog on Apr 27, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Apr 27, 2013
Tags: fruit & unusual.
The beautiful Hyde Hall greenhouse (with cold frames) from the Gabriel Ash RHS greenhouse collection
Most vegetable gardeners lucky enough to have the use of a greenhouse use it for raising seeds early in the year, extending the season into the autumn, and of course growing tomatoes and cucumbers in the height of the summer. If you’d like to find something a little more exciting when you open the greenhouse door, these unusual crops will appreciate the extra heat.
Melons, Cucumis melo
Difficult to grow outside in the UK, melons enjoy the heat and humidity of the greenhouse. They are grown in the same way as cucumbers, trailing, or climbing up nets, and are best planted on a mound, as they don’t like getting their stems wet. You’ll need to prune them to encourage a good crop of fruit (start by pinching out the growing tip to make the plant bushy, then restrict the plant to four lateral stems and pinch out their growing tips when they have six leaves. Plants fruit on sub-laterals formed on these lateral stems). You’ll also need to feed your plants and keep them very well-watered once they start to flower and fruit.
You can also grow your own watermelons (Citrullus lanatus), for which seeds are sown indoors in April or May, although it’s best to choose an early variety that has been bred to crop well in the UK climate. You could be harvesting fruits weighing five kilos from midsummer, but they will need plenty of water! Like squash, watermelons have male and female flowers, and will benefit from a little help in the form of manual pollination. Prune in the same way as melons.
Peppers, Capsicum species.
It is perfectly possible to grow peppers (both sweet and chilli) outside in a sunny spot on the patio, or on a windowsill indoors. But they also make a great greenhouse crop, enjoying the extra light and heat. They’re treated in much the same way as tomatoes, and seeds have to be sown in late winter or early spring to get a head-start on the season, but you’ll still be able to buy plants at your local garden centre, and there’s a large range of varieties available mail order.
Peppers need to be given a high potash tomato feed every week once they start to flower and form fruits. And, like tomatoes, they need to be kept consistently damp to perform at their best. The ‘heat’ of a chilli depends on a number of factors, including the variety you choose and the weather – so in the event that we have a long, hot summer, handle with caution!
Most peppers grown in the UK are Capsicum annum species, but if you can take the heat and don’t mind a bit of hunting around you can often find seeds and plants for some of the less well-known species, including Rocotos (or Lotocos), which are C. pubescens and have lovely purple flowers.
Lab lab (or hyacinth) beans, Dolichos lablab or Lablab purpureus
Although relatively unknown in the UK, lab lab beans are an Asian favourite. They need protection to grow well in the UK, but if you have a polytunnel or a greenhouse then they can be grown in the same way as climbing French beans, with pods picked as soon as they are large enough to eat. As an added bonus, they have scented flowers that appear from July onwards from seeds sown in April.
Like French beans, lab lab beans are very varied – they come with different colours of both pods and flowers. Some are day length sensitive and will only crop well in the tropics, but there are also day neutral varieties that don’t mind our long summer days.
Dudi (also known as calabash, or the bottle gourd), Lagenaria sicceria
Dudi will grow outside in a good summer, but is more reliable in the greenhouse. It’s a popular Indian vegetable, a bit like a climbing courgette, and the fruits are best eaten when they are young. Like pumpkins, dudi seeds are sown in April or May and potted up into relatively rich soil. They make big plants, so give them plenty of space and a solid support to scramble up. If you do grow them, remember to pop out to the greenhouse in the evening so enjoy the flowers, which open at night!
Sweet potatoes, Ipomea batatas
Sweet potatoes have actually been grown in the UK for over 450 years, but they often don’t crop well outdoors in a British summer. Another big plant, they trail rather than climb, and need to be given a reasonable amount of space. They are grown from ‘slips’ which are cuttings taken from a seed potato, and sold in late spring. Slips need to be potted up and kept warm, before planting out into the greenhouse once they have established a good set of roots – plant them really deeply to encourage tuber production. They like the heat and humidity of the greenhouse and a rich soil, but don’t feed them too much nitrogen as that encourages leafy growth at the expense of the tubers.
If you enjoy growing unusual fruits and vegetables then you’ll love my new book – Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs: Unusual edible plants and the people that grow them
Melons and watermelons, all kinds of peppers, and sweet potatoes are all widely available from the major seed companies and garden centres. For anything more exotic try the Sowing New Seeds Project varieties available through the Heritage Seed Library, or a commercial supplier like Jungle Seeds.
Posted in Blog on Apr 17, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Mar 2, 2014
Tags: Grow-dome & unusual.
Normally I don’t write about books that aren’t going to be published for months and months, but this one is special – Permanent Publications have announced that Stephen Barstow’s long-awaited book, Around the World in 80 Plants, will be published this coming September.
Stephen is somewhat of a legend in the unusual edibles community, because his garden on the side of a fjord in Norway is home to more unusual edible plants than you could count in one day, despite the snowy climate and the long (sunless) winters. Alys Fowler talks about Stephen’s garden in her Thrifty Forager book, and I’m still jealous that she got to visit.
I met Stephen a couple of weeks ago, on one of his trips to the UK (and Kat Morgenstern of Sacred Earth) and we chatted about my ethnobotany course. We didn’t find the time to talk about Stephen’s edimentals*, so hopefully we will meet again at some point.
According to the advanced information sheet, Stephen’s forthcoming book has the subtitle “An Edible Perennial Vegetable Adventure for Temperate Climates”, and will take us on a journey around the temperate world, introducing us to Stephen’s top 80 perennial leafy vegetables. I think picking his favourites must have been quite a tough job – apparently he has 2000+ species to choose from!
“There are stories of the wild foraging traditions of indigenous people in all continents: from the Sámi people of northern Norway to the Maori of New Zealand, the rich food traditions of the Mediterranean peoples, the high altitude food plants of the Sherpas in the Himalayas, wild mountain vegetables in Japan and Korea, and the wild aquatic plant that sustained Native American tribes….”
This should prove to be the most exciting book of the year for veggie gardeners, plant geeks and ethnobotanists, so it’s a shame there’s still so long to wait. The book is currently only available to pre-order from the Green Shopping Catalogue.
In the meantime, if you’re not familiar with Stephen’s writing then he has contributed three articles to Permaculture Magazine, each on a fascinating topic. Discover Hablitzia, Caucasian Spinach, a cold-tolerant leafy green native to the Nordic countries, and learn how to cook Hostas, ‘Oriental Perennial Spinach’ and Stephen’s record-breaking Xtreme Salads.
Stephen coined the term ‘edimental’ to describe the plants he grows which are both edible and beautifully ornamental.
Posted in Blog on Feb 21, 2013 · ∞
Last modified on Feb 27, 2014
Tags: books & unusual.
Welcome to my Virtual Veg Advent Calendar. In the run up to Christmas I am revisiting some of the photos that have appeared on the blog over the years, and the posts that go along with them :)
These white oca tubers are from 2008. They’re easy plants to grow, but not usually the most productive things in our climate.
Open door 17:
- For suggestions of unusual crops that are a bit more successful, listen to episode 122 of the Alternative Kitchen Garden Show.
- Alternatively, read my review of James Wong’s Homegrown Revolution. Suttons are still running their offer of a copy of his book bundled with seeds from the accompanying range.
8 days to go!
Posted in Blog on Dec 17, 2012 · ∞
Last modified on Nov 24, 2012
Tags: advent & unusual.