Most Londoners who grow vegetables in their gardens or allotments are content with crops of courgettes, carrots and new potatoes. However, ethnobotanist James Wong has a fresh new message.
On his Croydon patch he grows sweet potatoes and chop suey greens, rats' tail radish and sea kale. Instead of spinach he grows callaloo, a Caribbean spinach with carnival-coloured leaves that taste, says Wong, like a perfect combo of spinach and watercress. Rather than tomatoes, he grows green Mexican tomatillos, which have their own papery cases and are easier to grow; instead of cucumber, he grows trailing cucamelons, tiny grape-sized watermelons that taste of cucumber and lime.
He calls these exotic plants incredible edibles — and he has a point: consider "electric daisies" that make your tastebuds tingle like space dust; strawberry corn cobs for a "popcorn fiesta" in the microwave; or oyster mushrooms.
Wong spent two years trialling 120 interesting edibles in his own garden, without propagator or greenhouse, in order to find the plants that are easy to grow, taste good and crop well in less than ideal situations. He insists it isn't about growing unusual vegetables for their curiosity value.
Wong says: "It's about achieving delicious, high-yielding foods that are expensive to buy yet easy to grow. We don't eat the same stuff we did two generations ago, so why on earth should we be stuck growing it?"
His enthusiasm is catching, and his new book, The Homegrown Revolution, which details his choice of incredible edibles and includes recipes, could become a bible for more adventurous choices as Londoners become more confident about growing their own.
Suttons Seeds has backed the concept with a 31-strong range of James Wong seeds that incorporates many of his key crops, from anise hyssop, the licorice-flavoured herb, to wintergreen, the American shrub with scarlet berries that taste of root beer and peppermint.
Foodies will want to serve asparagus pea, which Wong claims is foolproof to grow, has beautiful burgundy flowers and delivers delicious finger-long beans. Health nuts will doubtless seize on the seed of quinoa, the trendy superfood, which will provide up to a pound of grain from just 10 plants, as well as antioxidant goji berries, which, says Wong, are easier to grow than stinging nettles. Edamame, the green chickpeas that are Mrs Beckham's staple diet, make the ultimate low-effort crop; they will flower and fruit in as little as eight weeks after sowing.
If you grow vegetables in containers, you could try Wong's imaginative recipe pots, such as a sushi trough planted with Japanese hardy ginger, wasabi — Japanese green horseradish — and small-leaved hosta greens. Mojito lovers might plant up a cocktail bucket of calamondin lime tree, mint and stevia, the natural leafy sugar substitute.
Many of Wong's choices are especially good to look at, such as the gorgeous pink-flowered lablab bean, with mangetout style pods that taste of chestnuts, and white Alpine strawberries, which taste of pineapple and which fruit from April to November.
In fact some of them are already known to us as ornamental plants, such as Queensland Arrowroot, also known as canna. Their starchy rhizomes are a major food crop from Mexico to Australia.
And although we're familiar with dahlias, growing them for their blousy flowers, we wouldn't think of chomping on their tubers, but the ever-resourceful Wong could make us change our minds. He points out that, roasted like parsnips with a little brown sugar, they have the sweet richness of Jerusalem artichoke.
* Homegrown Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) costs £20, but Homes & Property readers can buy the book for £17.99, including p&p by calling 01903 828503 and quoting ref PB076.