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I hope to grow the majority of my own fruit and vegetables one day, and the fact I also work as a garden trainee means I always have a keen interest in learning more about growing edibles. I have acquired a number of books about the subject over the last few years and many deal with the common crops in great detail. If you want to know about some of the more unusual potential harvests though, you often find that if they are dealt with at all, it is briefly. So I was pleased to find a book that is actually entirely about lesser grown crops. It was James Wong's Homegrown Revolution - the subject of todays review.
James Wong is probably best known for presenting the programme "Grow Your Own Drugs". I didn't watch that, although I have recently acquired the book that accompanied the T.V series. He is a Kew Trained botanist and someone who is passionate about growing exotic crops in his South London garden. His trials as to what would and would not grow successfully in this climate form the basis of the book. You will find many, many pictures of Mr Wong inside, posing in his lovely garden, with a smile on his face. This seems de rigeur in many celebrity garden books now, but they do at least break up the text and make the pages colourful.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH SPUDS, SPROUTS AND SWEDES?
The above heading is the title of the introduction of the book. In it James explains that he thinks that while "grow your own" has been extremely popular over the last few years, most allotment holders and garden growers are stuck in "a 1940's time warp" as regards what they chose to grow. He says that "most" growers "appear unaware of the possibilities beyond swedes, spuds and swedes". At this point I nearly shut the book for good. James must have had very different experiences from me. My allotment site has more than 300 plots in my part of it, and it is fair to say the plots that mainly comprise root veg and sprouts are as rare as hens teeth and have been for years. My local garden centre offers one variety of swede seeds due to "lack of demand", compared to 6 kinds of trendy chard. I decided to put our differences aside, and continue reading and I am glad I did.
The author assures us he is not going to discuss exotic veg for the sake of being different. He has trialled the varieties mentioned over several years to be sure of selecting those that can grow in this country. I would add that James grows his crops in a London garden. Growers in the chillier North may not have the same results. It is also usually accepted that growing in a city means it is possible to grow more tender species than you can grow even a few miles away which is something I have kept in mind when following his advice. The author does suggest some methods of dealing with less favourable micro climates as well. He has chosen vegetables and fruit that can be grown without the need for a heated propogater or heated greenhouse, so if you are someone lucky enough to have a glasshouse and wanted ideas of what to grow in there, you may be disappointed. I would add that many of the selected plants still require starting off indoors on a sunny window sill, and if you don't have a good amount of room on those, you will find the number of viable plants more limited. You may be able to buy some as a mature plant though which are less fussy if hardened off well.
THE TYPES OF CROPS COVERED
The book covers a large number of fruit and vegetables and a few herbs and spices, some more unusual than others. Sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, quince and lemon verbena are often featured in other gardening books but wasabi, Vietnamese fish mint and huckleberries are some of the more unusual crops included. I would say that the majority of crops are not ones that I have found to be thoroughly dealt with elsewhere, so it feels a worthy companion to what I already have on my bookshelves.
Each crop gets it's own page or two, and you will find out how to grow it and how to prepare and cook it. There are also a few recipes. I think the descriptions of taste have been the most useful in helping me shortlist what to grow. I wouldn't feel as motivated to source an unusual crop if you don't know whether you will actually want to eat it! Although James recommends growing what you like to eat, it is obviously harder to do that if you can't find the veg for sale in a shop in the first place. It is quickly clear that many of the crops are well used in Chinese/Malaysian and Thai cuisine so if you like that, you will be well catered for. I cook recipes from all around the world so I don't mind this Asian bias. I would also add that just because James Wong suggests that something is usually stir fried or cooked with certain Indian spices doesn't mean that is the only way it can be prepared, so if you are happy to experiment, you don't need to feel restricted. What has limited my choice of new crops to grow has been space more than anything else! I have added lots of items to my "when I have a larger plot" list though!
A GOOD BOOK FOR BEGINNERS?
There is a very useful general information section which offers handy hints on subjects such as effective watering of plants and how to maximise light in shady areas. Experienced gardeners will have to be prepared to skip a few pages here and there, but that is the case with most books. He does explain basic techniques well and beginners can be comforted that no special skills are involved in growing the more exotic crops. The glossary is very basic, even for a starter guide - it defines "perennial" and "growbag" for example but it doesn't occupy much room. I would recommend even more experienced gardeners read the introduction though - as you can find ideas on growing your own garden twine amongst other things, which is not exactly everyday advice!
HOW THE BOOK HAS HELPED ME
I was excited to read about the Sea Buckthorn which withstands salt laden gales, drought, low temperatures and general neglect because it sounded perfect for my parent's seaside holiday caravan garden. I liked the sound of it's tart citrusy berries even more. I planted a bush last year and it is romping away, fully living up it's hardy promise. On a smaller scale, I have experimented with the microgreens which you can grow inside like cress on nothing more than damp kitchen paper. These are extremely easy to grow most of the year although they are slower in winter. It is lovely not to be dependent on clement weather to grow at least a few things! My other favourite crop has been "methi", also known as fenugreek greens, which managed to survive well in our less than sunny summer last year. It is a versatile savoury ingredient and good to have if you like making authentic Indian dishes as it often pops up in recipes for those. I would also heartily recommend sweet "skirret", a mostly forgotten British veg although I was first introduced to this elsewhere.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK?
If you have an interest in growing something more unusual, this is a good book to have to hand. The information is concise and focuses on the easiest methods. It would help to like Asian cuisine in particular, but if you are opened minded to new tastes there is a lot of interesting crops inside. Some of the seeds may be hard to source at local garden centres but the author does suggest suppliers at the rear of the book. He also has a "Homegrown Revolution" collection of seeds available through Suttons although I did not find this out from the book, but through a web search. I can't accuse the author if trying to flog his own products! If you do not have a sunny window sill or two, and a choice of sheltered outdoor planting sites, be aware the number of potential crops will be reduced a lot but I still think there is enough variety to make the book worthy buying.
Cover price £20, hardback. Amazon Price £12.00 and the Book People edition is even cheaper at the time of writing.
[This review is also on Ciao.]