THE TRIAL GROUNDS
WHY TRIAL AT ALL?
There are well over 2,000 edible crops that can be grown in the UK, yet for some reason most gardening books only mention the same 15-20 species. That’s less than 1% of what we could actually grow!
I have always been puzzled by the fact that us Brits are so incredibly adventurous when it comes to eating new foods, magpie-ing ingredients and ideas from all over the world, yet have remained so conservative when it comes to growing them. Is it because our blustery climate only allows us to get away with this tiny handful of species? Is it because these more niche crops just don’t taste as good or yield as well as the traditional allotment favourites? As a botanist I knew that neither of these was likely to be the case, so I decided to dig a little beyond the surface to see whether there was a world of weird and wonderful homegrown flavours we might be missing out on.
However when I started out on my ‘homegrown revolution’ journey to uncover a new generation of British ‘crops of the future’, I came across a single enormous challenge: a severe lack of reliable data. The vast majority of it was either heavily bias (many seed catalogues aren’t always as upfront as they should be), conflicting or just plain missing. Talk about frustrating! I soon realised the only way to get my hands on accurate info about the true culinary and garden merit of these species was to take the plunge and test them myself.
So I dug up my tiny suburban front lawn, covered my back garden in pots and troughs and set out meticulously trialling over 200 (to date) species from all corners of the globe to see what (if any) would rival conventional ‘dig for victory’ style veg for passionate foodie growers like me. The results were, and continue to be, more than a little surprising!
MY 5 MERCILESS TESTS
As a scientist I wanted to set up a battery of rigorous tests to ensure that anything that made it through was guaranteed, at least on my plot, to be a reliable performer given the stiff competition on offer so everything was assessed by the following criteria:
1) WINNING FLAVOUR – There is an enormous difference between ‘technically edible’ and ‘worth eating’. As I don’t believe there is much point growing unusual fruit and veg for their novelty value alone, this was my most important yardstick. It also needed to taste at least as good (and hopefully better) than the shop bought equivalent.
2) EASY TO GROW – Would it grow in the UK? OK, in theory with enough coaxing pretty much anything from pineapples to coconuts can theoretically be grown in Britain, but I wanted to see what it was really practical to get away with for the average home grower, not for the Eden Project or Kew Gardens. This meant growing everything 100% outdoors with no heating, laborious pruning, special feeding, watering, etc. As general guide if it proved less time and effort than a tomato to get a crop from, it passed this test.
3) HIGH-YIELDING – As gardens get smaller and smaller, yield is becoming ever more important for home growers. Everything would therefore need to provide a really decent harvest that made up for the time and effort it took to grow it.
4) TRICKY TO TRACK DOWN / EXPENSIVE TO BUY - There isn’t a whole lot of logic growing stuff that is extremely cheap and widely available in shrink-wrapped perfection in every supermarket (that is unless there is a major flavour difference – see comment on flavour above). I strongly believed that to pass the test my crops had to represent genuine value for the time and effort spent on them & that meant that needed to be expensive to buy or tricky to track down in the shops.
5) EASY ON THE EYE - I don’t believe in relegating edible plants to the bottom of the garden by the compost bins and shed. In fact as for most of us space is at a serious premium, winning crops needed to look as good as they tasted, so they could take pride of place in the flower border.
Of course PLENTY of conventional, tried-and-tested crops stood up brilliantly to these tests – including everything from fresh sweetcorn, garden peas, runner beans to the whole gambit of berries – however as info on these were widely available, I turned my attention specifically to hunting for hidden foodie gems out there waiting to be discovered.
THE (SURPRISING) RESULTS
Running over two of the harshest winters in a century, with some pretty lack lustre summers to boot & with me refusing to spend more than 2-4 hours a week tending to them, the success of my crops ran on a ‘treat ‘em, keep ‘em keen’ principle. Less than 50% of them have made it through, including (surprisingly) many widely -recommended conventional species like spinach & cauliflowers (too hard to grow, for me at least), aubergines (low/poor quality yield), cabbages & main crop onions (for me, more expensive to grow than they are to buy!)
There were also some unexpected failures in the more exotic stakes, with watermelons, okra, soy beans & habanero chilies all biting the dust – which is funny considering how often seed companies / garden writers claim that these are reliable performers.
What I was left with was a ‘dream team’ short list of crops that I have turned into a brand new book & blog, so I could share my results with the world and push back the boundaries of what people think can be grown on our chilly little island. Keen to make this a revolution anyone can take part in, I teamed up with Suttons Seeds to create a seed and plant range of ‘alternative’ fruit, veg and spices that will be widely available at a price anyone can afford.
My trials continue at a frantic pace, so do come back and see what’s new!