Mouse melons are destined to be a big hit with urban gardeners. So says Tom Moggach, who grows them, along with all manner of interesting edibles, in his 33ft-long Chalk Farm garden.
"They're fun, easy to grow and make the most of vertical space. The vine produces handfuls of bite-size fruit with beautiful marbled skin and which taste like a crunchy cucumber with a refreshing hint of lemon," he says.
"Mouse melons are good tossed into salads and they make great baby dill pickles." Moggach is a teacher by trade who has run food-growing courses for more than 100 London schools and whose company, City Leaf, provides horticultural know-how to community groups as well as where-to-start Londoners keen to get growing.
He is spreading the word further afield with his book The Urban Kitchen Gardener, which shows how, in our city microclimate, we can stretch the seasons and experiment with less traditional crops.
"Growing edibles also means we can eat plants at any stage in their lifecycle, such as using the white flowers and green seeds of coriander: fantastic ingredients that you cannot buy," he says.
In the limited spaces that most of us have, what should we grow?
"Stuff that adds magic to your meals, such as the Japanese leaf, shiso, and those that give you multiple harvests, like herbs, salad leaves and chilli plants," says Moggach. "Save your space for hard-to-buy herbs such as sorrel, and dill. It's all about filling in the gaps."
He grows a big variety of edible leaves on the mezzanine roof of his house, which he reaches by crawling out of the landing window. "Before my family and I sit down to eat, I cut a mix of leaves such as mustards, purslane, chervil, sorrel, coriander, throw them in a bowl, toss them in dressing and put it on the table. It's enough to transform every meal."
Shiso sounds like a sneeze but is, assures Moggach, a great substitute for basil or mint, tasting a little like both. The best flavour comes from Japanese green shiso or perilla; Moggach grows this in bulk, using the large, jagged leaves to make wraps, preserve in herb butters, shred into fried rice as well as to decorate dishes.
His kit may not be the smartest, but it works. The "blue-tray technique", for instance, comprises a series of stackable lightweight plastic trays used to store mushrooms by greengrocers and supermarkets. He lines each tray with a bin bag, punches holes in the bottom, then fills with multipurpose or municipal compost: ideal for salad leaves, herbs and baby-leaf, super-trendy micro greens.
Drawing on his love of food, Moggach is inventive in his plot-to-plate — as well as pot-to-plate — cuisine. Although his book includes his own delicious recipes such as basil and lime ice cream, and chilli corn bread, it is his way of firing up all manner of food with fragrant and flavourful herbs and leaves that inspires: stuff mixed mustard leaves into a sour dough steak sandwich; float nasturtium leaves in soups; toss sorrel in a bowl of buttered new potatoes; wrap basil leaves around slow-roasted cherry tomatoes for classy canapés.
Although he gathers fresh eggs from his chickens and harvests honey from his hives, Moggach says he is not aiming to be self-sufficient. "Growing my own edibles is a city thing. I'm living in London and I want the best of both worlds: to grow interesting, quirky bits and pieces but also to enjoy all the wonderful diversity of food London has to offer, from Chinatown to the farmers' market. And gardening is the best antidote to the buzz of city life."
* The Urban Kitchen Gardener (Kyle Books) costs £16.99, but Homes & Property readers can buy it at the special rate of £11.99, including p&p. Call 020 7692 7215 and quote code UKGHP.
* To contact Tom Moggach, visit cityleaf.co.uk; twitter address @Tom_Moggach
Images by: Laura Hynd