Well I thought I was doing pretty well on the exotics front this year, what with the tomatilloes hogging one end of the greenhouse and my huge tree chilli – now, in its second year, almost at roof height – fighting it out with the tomatoes at the other.
The loquat tree is thriving, the fig less so after I strimmed its head off a few weeks ago.
The yacon rotted in last winter’s wet so I’ll have to buy some more next spring (should have brought it in under cover, I know) but I’ve made up for it by acquiring a Japanese wineberry.
But the pros at Hampton Court, as always, make me feel like a stuck-in-the-mud traditionalist.
There were veg in that Growing Tastes marquee I never even knew existed, let alone thought of growing.
Here are the ones which are going in my little black book:
Cranberries: These were everywhere this year, thanks to a show feature by Ocean Spray all about the great tradition that is the American cranberry harvest.
I’ve heard about this before. Every autumn in New England they flood the wet marshlands where the cranberries grow, then stir up the water so the ripe berries are loosened and float on the surface in great wide ruby-red mats, ready for collection.
Kind of difficult, of course, to replicate in your back garden. But the bit about wet marshlands does offer a clue as to how to grow these tart little berries.
You’ll need an acid soil – we’re talking 5.0 or lower – or a pot of ericaceous compost; line planting hole or pot with an old compost bag to create those swampy conditions. You don’t want to create standing water (that’s a pond), just soupy soil, so punch a few holes in the bottom for drainage. Then water like mad, with rainwater whenever possible.
Get the conditions right and it all becomes a lot easier: they’ll survive the frostiest winters and will crop heavily for 10 years or more. Oh yes, and you can pick the berries in the normal way: no flooding required.
Cardamom: I have to admit to being a bit hazy as to the origins of those curious, crispy little pods I occasionally pound in my pestle and mortar when making posh curry. Something vaguely exotic; tropical jungles, perhaps, and south Asia.
Well: I know a lot more now. There are two types of cardamom, it seems, both distantly related to ginger.
The green one, Elettaria cardamomum, has the stronger, more familiar flavour if you’re using your cardamom in sweeter dishes. Black cardamom, Amomum subulatum, has a smokier, more subtle taste: some say not as nice, but apparently that’s because they’re not using it right. It’s used in meatier, heavier dishes, always savoury.
You can grow both as houseplants. Not the most exciting of windowsill inhabitants, perhaps, since they’re unlikely to flower and produce pods in the UK, but they are evergreen at least.
And if you grow the green type you can use the leaves instead of the pods anyway, so you still get to boast about your home-grown cardamom.
Malabar spinach: My but this is a pretty plant. I haven’t seen anything quite so eyecatching on a kitchen garden stand since the arrival of the lablab bean, amid much flurrying of garden writers’ notebooks, a few years ago.
In fact they aren’t that dissimilar, both having a tinge of sultry deep purple, pretty flowers and an attractive habit of scrambling fetchingly up the nearest support.
They also both like it as warm as you can get it: definitely one for the greenhouse or polytunnel, this one.
Raw, the leaves are thick, crunchy and fleshy and taste of green peppers. Cooked, it’s more like our type of spinach, though it doesn’t collapse into nothing the moment it hits a pan. There’s a green version, but my favourite is the red one, Basella alba ‘Rubra’, pretty enough to put the most traditional of ornamental climbers firmly in the shade.