Some may call it a lamentable need for distraction: gardening in the age of Twitter and Facebook. I call it an inquiring mind in the pursuit of a fuller appreciation of the infinitely varied world of edible plants. But then I would, since I’m doing it.
I’m talking about looking out for something different - anything different – to try growing. The insatiable urge to find new types of vegetable to grow is like a modern-day (and edible) version of plant hunting.
Pioneers like James Wong and Mark Diacono are the George Forrest and Ernest Wilson of their day, though hopefully without having to be robbed by Chinese brigands or gored to death by wild bullocks, as happened to the unfortunate Scottish plant hunter David Douglas in 1834.
And just as Victorian gardens filled up with then-new varieties of rhododendrons and you got to show off your new tulip tree to admiring horti mates, these days allotments are sprouting amaranth and oca, and there’s a certain cachet in pointing out your burgeoning crop of bang-on-trend Japanese wineberries or Szechuan peppers.
There is a point to all this fashionista trend-setting. Though there’s nothing wrong with spuds and carrots – quite the opposite, if you grow your own - just occasionally it’s nice to expand your horizons a little. After all, quite a lot of the things we now consider staples of your average allotment were once exotics - runner beans, for example, were brought to the UK by those irrepressible Victorians as an ornamental plant. It didn’t occur to them to try actually eating the seed pods for years.
Often you find your interesting-but-different experimental crop doesn’t entirely live up to expectations: last year’s achocha, a sort of cross between a cucumber and a green pepper, were pretty plants and easy to grow but the fruits were small and for my money, didn’t taste different enough from green peppers to explain why you’d grow achocha and not green peppers (apart, of course, from an insatiable need to be very, very fashionable).
But sometimes, you can be nicely surprised. My expanding clump of yacon is now among my favourite edibles in the garden. It does brilliantly in damp summers, looks gorgeous, is satisfyingly vigorous while behaving nicely to other plants around it, and yields huge, juicy tubers at the end of the year which taste a little like pears and are so sweet they can be eaten raw if you don’t care to cook them.
For me the hunt for new things to try growing is a search for the next yacon – a vegetable which expands my horizons and gives me something tasty to eat. I start every spring with something, usually in my greenhouse, which I haven’t yet grown, just to have a go, see if it’s worth it, and hopefully keep my veg-growing life interesting. Oh yes, and to boast about it to my friends.
Here are this year’s on-trend arrivals: I’ll let you know how they score on the yacon-ometer later in the year.
Kaffir lime: the first time I saw its waisted. glossy leaves in a show garden at Hampton Court I wanted this plant. They’re used in Thai cooking, which isn’t often on the Nex menu but may well be soon if this lives up to its promise. My track record with citrus isn’t great, but I’m always willing to have another go.
Okra: every time I go into an Indian restaurant, ladies’ fingers, or bhindi bhaji, is on the order. I’ve had a go at growing okra before but the young plants shrivelled in our cold spring: this year I have a super-duper new propagator which is keeping them going nicely. They’ll stay in the greenhouse, trained on a wigwam, for upward-pointing fruits later in the year.
Tree chilli: more properly known as Capsicum pubescens, it has small and very hot chilli peppers and is basically much like any other chilli plant – except that it grows up to 2m tall in a good summer, especially if you keep it in the greenhouse. It makes a rather unkempt, straggly shrub and needs plenty of support.
Chilean guavas: These little shrubs look fabulous already with the new growth coming through coppery fresh, and they’re only 6″ high. Just imagine what they’ll be like with their pink, blueberry-like fruits in summer. They do need acid soil, something of a setback since I have unrelentingly chalky soil, but I’m growing mine in pots of ericaceous compost, just like blueberries, where they should be quite content.