One of the highlights of my visit to Hampton Court last week was the chance to visit Mark Diacono’s forest garden stand. Mark has a smallholding in Devon called Otter Farm, where he grows the more unusual and a few forgotten plants. Experimenting to see what he can get to grow in the British climate, he has a vineyard, orchards planted with quince, almonds and apricots and a variety of plants most of us have never heard of, let alone contemplated eating.
He has written several books for the River Cottage Handbook series and in 2011 A Taste of the Unexpected won the Guild of Food Writers Food Book of the Year award. I can vouch for all the books being great reads but it is the latter that I found the most fascinating, challenging my ideas about what I should grow on my own plot. Mark believes that it makes more sense to grow the exotic and unusual, the food that tastes great but is expensive to buy and that is often transported half way around the world to reach our kitchens rather than the staples of our diet like onions and potatoes that are so cheaply and readily available from the supermarket. As a result the fields of Otter Farm are filled with mulberry trees, Asian pears and white cherries, Szechuan pepper trees and Egyptian walking onions.
One area has been established as a forest garden with plantings of mirabelle plums, dwarf peaches, mints and bladdernuts. No, I hadn’t heard of them either. Forest gardens are a form of permaculture which mimicks nature and the upper, mid and lower storeys of vegetation in a forest but uses edible crops instead.
Mark used his stand and his talent for cocktail making at Hampton Court to educate his audience a little to his ideas. Was it his cunning plan to get his audience tipsy and then get them to buy plants? Well I came away with 2 plants, a yacon and a Lippia, so it wasn’t a bad plan.
Lippia dulcis or Aztec sweet herb from the verbena family is a tender perennial from Central America. It’s a low growing and spreading plant, with pretty foliage and small white flowers on stalks. It’s not for its looks that you grow it but for its incredibly sweet leaves which can be used as a natural sweetner. Mark used it, and the yacon, to sweeten his strawberry and thyme syrup cocktails.
Yacon originates from South America and its name ‘water root’ in Inca, alludes to the juiciness of the tubers which, according to Mark, resemble a jacket potato when dug up but taste more like a pear. A tender perennial, it produces large tubers which should be ready to harvest in late autumn and smaller tuberous roots which you can lift and store for planting next year, just as you would with dahlias. The sugars in yacon are indigestible to humans and, as a result, they have attracted the attention of scientists, particularly in America where they are increasingly being grown to provide natural sweetners for diabetics. For more information about yacon take a look at this fascinating article Mark wrote for The Guardian.
Well, it was dry enough this morning for me to get out and plant up the Lippia in my herb planter and take the Yacon up to the allotment where I managed to find a home for it. Growing your own means many things to many people. Some, like the plot holders next to me, simply grow potatoes, carrots, cabbages and leeks wanting to be self-sufficient in the crops they eat the most. I prefer a mix, with some staples that I know will have been produced organically, with a variety of the more unusual such as purple mangetout, yellow french beans and tayberries. I might not be ready to give up on growing new potatoes, peas and broad beans but I do like Mark’s ideas. As humans we tend to be very conservative in what eat, preferring to stick to a quite narrow selection of crops. Who knows how climate change will actually affect the weather and crop production in the future but we will probably need to be more open to new ideas about what we grow and eat. Bananas, for instance, the world’s fourth most important food crop, are at risk from extinction due to their narrow gene pool and vulnerability to pests and diseases.
Mark’s ideas about growing Asian pears, Chilean guava and blue honeysuckle may seem a bit out there but most of us think nothing of adding a few blueberries to our cereal or a fruit salad and they were only introduced to the UK in the 1940s. As a child of the seventies and eighties I don’t think I ate an aubergine or peppers until my late teens and yet now I can’t imagine not using them in cooking. And, although we are more adventurous with our food, trying different cuisines when we eat out, many of us have yet to take the leap to growing the more unusual on our plot. But I’m determined to be a bit braver on my own plot. With recent purchases of myrtle, lemon verbena and French tarragon for the herb planter and plans to add a dwarf quince to the plot this autumn, I just need to dig out the recipe books for some inspiration now.
To find out more about Mark Diacono and Otter Farm go to otterfarm.co.uk where you can sign up to his blog, which I can highly recommend for posts as varied as, the opening of his own wine, to close encounters with Kylie’s bottom.