This is my second post about James Wong’s new Homegrown Revolution offerings. The first was about his collaboration with Suttons on a new seed and plant range. This one is about the book itself; there will be a third, but that’s still a secret ;)
Homegrown Revolution is officially published on Thursday 13th September, but I was very kindly given a review copy, so I can let you know what you’ll find inside. James starts off by explaining his revolution. He looks back at the way the British diet has changed since the war years, and then looks at the crops most people grow on their allotments and in kitchen gardens, and decides that gardening hasn’t kept pace with our changing tastes. And worse still, that we haven’t rediscovered some fabulous plants that were commonly grown by the Victorians, but fell by the wayside while we were digging for victory (or mechanizing agriculture).
His idea, then, is an extension of the common adage that you should grow what you eat – and he’s firmly looking in the direction of foodies who eat all kinds of wonderful (and expensive) things, but are still trying to harvest spuds and onions from their postage stamp plots.
Once you’re on board, James walks you through his 10 Commandments, which are really just about getting the conditions right for your plants – sun, water, soil, choosing crops, dealing with pests and diseases and stuff like that. Keen gardeners can skip ahead to the good stuff.
In the Tips & Tricks section, James outlines some speedy crops for small spaces. Unusual candidates for microgreens include borage, quinoa and purple basil. Then there are edible houseplants for windowsills, crops for window boxes and recipes for planting up pots on the patio. The section rounds off with a look at some of the weeds and ornamentals in your garden that you could be munching on, propagating your own plants and growing your own gardening sundries.
Next up comes Leaves and greens. Some of the plants here may be familiar, but many will not be. I had to look up James’ ‘Water Celery’, which is Oenanthe javanica ‘Flamingo’ and needs to be grown in a pond, on a pond margin or in damp soil.
Borage is often mentioned in books on herbs, or unusual vegetables, with mention of its cucumber-flavoured, hairy leaves being less than appetising. Usually it is relegated to having its pretty flowers frozen into ice cubes for summer fruit punches. But according to James, it’s a common vegetable throughout mainland Europe, and we’re just growing it wrongly. If you want to eat your borage leaves, you should be growing a white-flowered variety and sowing it in the autumn. Choose a shaded, sheltered spot with rich soil and keep the plants close together, so they shade each other. Give them plenty of water, and a high nitrogen feed every week. You’ll be encouraging leafy growth rather than flowers, so if you also want flowers you’ll need another plant in a sunnier spot, treated less well.
Once you’ve grown your plants, Homegrown Revolution has harvesting instructions, and serving ideas (or full-blown recipes) for each one.
Fruiting veg and grains are next to get the treatment, with goji berries, hyacinth beans and James’ favourite cucamelons all making an appearance. James has chosen his own common names for some of the plants, which anyone who has been dabbling in unusual edibles will find confusing – but each plant has also been given its scientific binomial name, so it’s easy to cross-reference.
Buried treasure looks at root crops – with dahlia yams being a surprise edible for me, along with canna lillies. When you’re buying plants sold as ornamentals it’s important to remember that they may have been treated with chemicals that aren’t used on food crops. Don’t snack on them until they’ve had a chance to detox in the garden….
Many readers may find the Experimental herbs, spices and flavours section the most fascinating. There are strange herbs and spices here that you can grow on the windowsill, or out in the garden. There are natural sweeteners and food colourings and flowers that taste like sour apples.
The final section, on Dessert fruit is the least experimental. Any keen fruit growers are likely to already have tried their hand (if they have the space) at Asian pears, medlars, quinces and mulberries. The cocktail kiwi and goldenberries have been readily available for a few years now. James adds to the debate on edible fuchsia berries by choosing F. regia subsp. regia as his favourite variety, recommends growing your own zereshk for Persian pilafs, and says that American cranberries (Viburnum trilobum) are easier to grow than the regular kind.
Once you’re at the back of the book then you’re into Gardening Essentials territory – the equipment you’ll need, gardens to visit, a glossary and a list of suppliers.
I can’t imagine that anyone will give up growing spuds on the recommendation of this book, but there’s plenty here to give you a nudge off the beaten track if you’re looking for new plants to grow. The book is well turned out, with good photos and some lovely illustrations. James says he’s grown all the plants (in Croydon) over the last two years, and only chosen the ones that survive. He’s also road tested all the recipes (although he admits to never having eaten Vietnamese fish mint, Houttuynia cordata, which is normally sold as an ornamental pond plant. He doesn’t enjoy its strong coriander flavour.) It’s been a while since there has been a good new addition to the unusual edibles bookshelf, and I think this is one you will like.
Homegrown Revolution is available from Thursday in hardback (RRP £20) and you can pre-order from Amazon. According to my press release it will also be available as an ebook (RRP £10.99), but I don’t have any more details on that at the moment.