Posted 17th Apr 2015
In celebration of National Gardening Week (from 13th to 19th April) we spoke with ethnobotanist and television presenter James Wong to find out more about his new book, Grow For Flavour, and to discover some of his top gardening tips
How did you become so interested in gardening?
I think people expect some kind of singular epiphany moment, when I suddenly saw the light. But the truth is I am such a plant geek. I find it weird that there are people out there who AREN'T interested in gardening. I guess I have genetics to blame for my all-consuming fascination with them. I have been growing since I can remember.
If there is one, what does a typical day or week look like for you?
Oh gosh, that is a tricky one. Being a freelancer, I always have a bunch of projects on the go.
Most of my time is taken up with research work for new writing and garden design projects, with usually two or three articles to write and one radio or TV broadcast to organise, prep and present for. In all of this I set aside at least one day every week or fortnight to get in the garden.
I am a bit of a workaholic, and am at it seven days a week. Probably as I am a control freak and I insist on testing every recipe personally three times, writing the copy for my Suttons Seeds packets and plant catalogues, etc. Although when your work is your passion, technically you never work a day in your life.
Your new book is called Grow For Flavour and we'd love to know what
your favourite dish to grow for flavour is?
Sorry, I am way too greedy to pick just one. Pretty near the top of the list has to be a simple tomato salad of sliced 'Russian Rose' and 'Green Zebra' tomatoes with just a little salt and pepper and a glut of unfiltered olive oil. Nothing too fancy or complicated, but when you have varieties this good the flavour is already there. Visions of this are one of the few things that will get me out digging on cold December days.
I also love late summer breakfasts of 'Jewel' black raspberries, whose sugary fruit contains five times the antioxidants of other varieties, and 'Rubel' blueberries tossed over Greek yoghurt with a drizzle of honey. The perfect start to a lazy Sunday after a potter around the plot.
Finally, and much less virtuously, every autumn I look forward to harvesting my saffron to make my Mexican mole (pronounced mo-lay) sauce. This impossible mix of spices, nuts, dried fruit and – wait for it – dark chocolate, is truly spectacular on roast chicken with a mountain of fluffy white rice and a crisp green salad.
Do you think a complete novice can step out into the garden and grow fruit and veg successfully, or does it take someone with knowledge?
For decades mysterious rules and 'one best way' approaches have dominated home veg growing. But, you know what? Modern science has shown that most of these are unnecessary and can even give measurably worse results. Crops grown harder (i.e. with less water, fertiliser and general coddling) actually taste better, are more resilient to threats like pests, taste better AND can even be more nutritious.
I was unfortunately born without a green thumb, have only a tiny urban plot to play with and have zero horticultural training (I am a botanist, not a gardener) so if I can do it, anyone can!
What are some of the biggest garden myths you've dispelled?
Oh there are so many. I would say above all though it is that 'heirloom varieties always taste better'. Some heirloom varieties do indeed taste incredible, but so do some super modern f1 varieties. In fact some crops, like sweetcorn and pea heirloom varieties, are virtually unrecognisable to modern palates. Rock hard, starchy cannon balls designed to be boiled for hours to make stooge-fest pea porridge, are more than a little disappointing in pasta primavera.
Sadly there aren't really any universal rules to predict good flavour, hence why I had to trial so many varieties to pick the true culinary heavyweights out there.
We know you've been working with Fiskars and our readers would like to know your top three essential tools for the garden and why?
Three? My tool cupboard is so wall-to-wall with Fiskars products, it's like a ninja's armoury. I love the Quantum secateurs. In fact there are pictures of me using them in my book taken months before we started working together. The long-handled loppers turn thinning out those congested branches at the tops of fruit trees from the most awkward task on earth into laser-guided precision pruning. And if I am only allowed three, I would say my other one has to be their spade. Super ergonomic design creates a tool that slices through my clay soil like butter and the shank creates a fulcrum that makes lifting out a breeze. If James Bond had garden tools, these would be them.
What are some of your top tips and tricks for growing we could share with our readers this National Gardening Week?
I'll give you my top three:
1) Studies have shown that apples at the sunny tops of trees can contain more antioxidants and up to twice the sugar of those grown on the shady bottom. Five minutes of pruning to take out any crossed or congested branches let's light in evenly across the plant, spiking the potential sweetness and nutrition of your fruit.
2) Sprinkling a little sugar around the roots of newly planted shrubs and trees before you water them can boost root vigour, speed up establishment and even improve their resistance to environmental threats by as much as 60%. Who said the sweet stuff was all bad?
3) Popping ½ a soluble aspirin tablet into a litre of water and spraying this onto your tomato plants can boost their sugar content by a whopping 150%, including a 50% increase in vitamin C.
Finally, what are you working on next we can all look out for?
Oh gosh. What have I got coming up? A national tour of talks on Grow For Flavour, plus a series of YouTube videos on the subject. Also a bunch more TV and radio, including Gardeners' Question Time and Countryfile. Watch this space!
James Wong is the new brand ambassador for Fiskars’ garden hand tools campaign, which is designed to revolutionise gardening and inspire a new generation to get outdoors. James has recently published Grow for Flavour with the Royal Horticultural Society, published by Octopus Books, and created a new range of seeds with Sutton Seeds.
RHS Grow For Flavour by James Wong, published by Mitchell Beazley on 2nd March 2015, RRP £20, www.octopusbooks.co.uk.
For more hints and tips from James Wong visit www.fiskars.co.uk.
Images courtesy of Jason Ingram