James Wong gives a lesson for those green on herb growing

James Wong with a Spiced Saffron Martini made from his recipe

James Wong with a Spiced Saffron Martini made from his recipe - Credit: Nigel Sutton

The TV botanist stopped by at Clifton Nurseries

Clifton Nurseries in Little Venice is a cheering place to visit at any time but on a cold foggy December night it was particularly so. To walk down an alley sparkling with Christmas trees, find children from St. Paul’s School Primrose Hill singing carols, try some spirited cocktails and then listen to the engaging James Wong giving a talk was altogether enlivening.

Not that everything ran smooth, however. James came early to set up for his lecture but a gremlin intervened between his laptop and the projector screen. This allowed me time to look at his book, Homegrown Revolution, and to be entertained by Jo Farish of the travelling pop-up bar, The Gin Garden. Jo used Sacred Gin, distilled in Highgate, to mix up one of James’s own recipes, Saffron Gin (delicious, very strong) then her more forgiving Lychee Ginger Gin.

The gremlin was stubborn. The audience had been waiting for a while, cocktails to hand, when James decided to get on without the pictures, which he did with the relaxed charm that has made him so popular, notwithstanding the rejection of his message in some quarters. When you challenge traditional assumptions about which fruit and vegetables will flourish in this country, talk about allotmenteers being in a time warp and speak ill of growing potatoes, you can expect some grumbling.

In essence, James’s message is that there are many more edible, growable plants than we know about and that we could be more open and experimental. Why, for instance, grow potatoes when they get blight while New Zealand yams (actually from the Andes) don’t? Why only grow day lilies or dahlias for their flowers, ignoring the food value of their tubers? Why think goji berries are too exotic to grow here when they can flourish on waste ground? Why grow swedes at all?

James speaks of Grow Your Own as a “cool big movement among the Facebook generation”, but one that often leads to a disappointing harvest of blighted potatoes and measly swedes. He, meanwhile, has been experimenting in his West London garden to find which less familiar plants really do well. His top five are tomatillos, New Zealand spinach, dahlia yams, alpine “snow” strawberries and asparagus peas. The conclusion he draws from this that it is the choice of plants that make the difference. However, might not another difference be that James knows what he’s doing, whatever he’s growing? He has been mad about plants since he was a child in Singapore, but many new gardeners are coming to an activity that needs more than enthusiasm and reading, it needs practice.

James mentioned in his talk that he is accused of being irresponsible, making it sound easy to grow exotica. That criticism might just as well be levelled at the catalogues, books and websites that have been promoting Grow Your Own as though any of it, traditional or innovative, is easy. Growing food is a skilled activity, and those who do it for us commercially deserve more appreciation than they get. Let us indeed be open, try new plants and tastes, enjoy learning more, but let’s also be glad that there are people worldwide skilled enough to do it for us.

Most Read

Homegrown Revolution by James Wong Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20

The Gin Garden (sparkly, stylish pop-up bar) www.gingarden.com