I went to the Edible Garden Show at the weekend (16th March 2013). There were lots of stalls, some of them with tasty nibbles to try, and a smallholders’ marquee with chickens, ducks, pigs and goats, but the highlight for me was three inspiring talks which I went to. The first was by Alys Fowler, about edible flowers and growing your own salads, the second was by Bob Flowerdew about making your own compost and the third was by James Wong and was called “No Garden – No Problem”. Although it didn’t entirely convince me that you could be a horticulturalist without a garden, he did have some inspiring ideas for windowsill alternatives to growing cress, as most of us will have done as children. These included sowing popcorn in the dark, so that the sugars are retained in the plant – they come out a blanched yellow colour and are intensely sweet, apparently, and so much more appealing to children than growing cress. Children’s undeveloped taste buds experience foods such as cress, or Brussels sprouts as very much more bitter than adults, he explained, so a better way to encourage children to grow plants and eat greens, is to grow, easy to grow, sweet plants such as Sugar leaf (Stevia), and blanched pop corn. I have to say that when I looked up Stevia, it said it has not been passed as fit for human consumption in this country: although it has been grown and used in South America for centuries, and internationally food processing companies have been developing ways to extract its sweetness for use in artificial sweeteners, (it contains a chemical which is 300 times sweeter than sugar), here we have strict legislation that does not allow its sale for use other than for ornamental purposes.
Other crops James Wong talked about included wasabi (Wasabia japonica), pineapple guavas, chickpeas, green tea, bergamot, cucamelon and saffron. Saffron, apparently was widely grown in Britain in the past, for nearly a thousand years, and only became more rare when labour became cheaper in Spain and it ceased to be economic to grow it here. Although it is easy to grow here, it is labour intensive to harvest. It is a crocus (Crocus sativus) that flowers in autumn and has long bright red stigmas from which the saffron is harvested. Saffron is the most expensive spice you can buy, worth more than its weight in gold, and has a mild mood enhancing quality when eaten, so well worth growing. All in all, James Wong gave a very inspiring speech enough to get anyone exited about growing their own.
Alys Fowler’s talk was equally inspiring. She demonstrated that it is possible to be self-sufficient in salads right through the winter, even without a greenhouse (using a frame and bubble wrap), and the wide range of unconventional foods we can grow and eat, including those usually considered to be weeds. Edible flowers included Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum), Violas, Calendula officinalis (English Marigolds – you eat the petals), Hemerocalis (day lily), Borage (Borago officinalis) and Bladder Campion (Silene vulgaris) – note, other types of campion are not edible. Weeds whose leaves can be eaten include Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Nettle (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), Broad Leaved willow Herb (Epilobium montanum), Fat Hen (Chenopodium album), Ground Elder (Aegopodium podagraria), Sow Thistle (Sonchus species), Goosegrass (Galium aparine), Chickweed (Stellaria media) and Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus). Stick to young spring leaves – older, tougher leaves tend to be more bitter. Other edible plants usually grown as ornamentals include Fuscias (you eat the berries, and can eat the flowers), Mallow (Malva sylvestris and Malva neglecta), ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare – you eat the petals, not the flower centres) and Rhus Typhina (Sumach – you can eat the berries) – be careful though Rhus verniciflua, the yellow fruited shrub with shiny leaves, known as the varnish tree, is very toxic. All these and more are listed in her easy to read, enjoyable and informative book “The Thrifty Forager” published by Kyle Books.
Bob Flowerdew, was quite controversial in his talk about compost making – advocating urinating on the compost heap to act as a compost activator – if you add sugar to your urine, apparently it doesn’t smell. He talked a lot of sense – about the need to turn your compost, to get air into it, and have a large compost heap (which heats up better), rather than a small black plastic bin – which he called “daleks”. But I would treat some of what he said with caution – for instance he said anything that has lived – (animal or vegetable), will rot down as long as it’s not bone dry, which is true, but many of us don’t have large enough compost heaps, or don’t turn them enough, to rot everything down properly, such as weed seeds and roots and bones. I would avoid putting cooked food in the compost heap in order not to attract rats, and where possible avoid weed seeds. Roots of perennial weeds such as nettle, dock, bind weed and ground elder can be soaked in water for a month and then added to the compost heap (or put in the council’s garden waste bin). More woody stems will take longer to rot down than softer green ones, but this is not necessarily a problem as they can be added to the next compost heap and will carry with them all the bacteria to inoculate to next lot of compost to give it a good start in the rotting down process. If you have room in your garden for three compost heaps, this is the ideal number – one to be “cooking” (it literally heats up as it rots down), one for use on the garden, and one for putting your current waste in. Making compost is a cheap and easy way of improving your soil’s fertility, soil structure and moisture retaining capacity, whether you are gardening on sand or clay or somewhere in between. It will also, when used as a mulch, speed up the warming of the soil in spring – something much needed in the cold March days in Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire at the moment.