A Botanical Birthday

It was my birthday yesterday and I wanted to celebrate but also do something completely different.  Friends suggested various bars and restaurants but to be honest I really didn’t want a big night out.  I thought about the theatre but there isn’t anything that I feel compelled to see.  This year I just wanted a nice quiet evening with my husband.  An evening to reflect and talk about nothing in particular   Don’t get many of those evenings nowadays.  We also don’t get a chance to do many foodie things together, so I was really pleased that the fabulous Clifton Nurseries in London’s Maida Vale were hosting a talk with one of my favourite gardeners – James Wong.

A young, energetic and realistic gardening inspiration

James is a Kew-trained botanist.  I first came across him on the BBC. He presented an award winning show called Grow Your Own Drugs.  It was brilliant and tied in so well with much of what this blog is about – understanding food and understanding what different botanicals are good for.   I’ve followed his blog on and off since then and have always been inspired by his passion for growing stuff.

Until yesterday I really thought that he had an army of helpers growing all sorts of different things for him and not the small garden his books and bios boast about.  James has a 5 metre square garden in London.  He has no greenhouse. He has grown and tested everything he talked to us about and this came through vividly as he talked.

Growing British Classics

James talked us through Great British Classics.


Image sourced from James Wong’s website

Each plant he mentioned started with a very British personality.  Let’s take Winston Churchill as an example. According to James, “Winston Churchill had plans to cover large areas of South West England in tea estates, as he believed that if our war-time tea supplies were ever cut off we simply couldn’t have won!  The only reason why this never actually happened was simply because the war ended before the plantations were ever planted – no kidding!”

What he said really made sense.  Tea needs a cool, wet climate. Britain is of course perfect and the drink is only one of the many uses of this plant.  the whole leaf is edible and why not use those lovely shoots in salads or sandwiches? Why not indeed!

He also talked about Queen Victoria and her penchant for Chilean Guavas which are plants hardy down to minus 10 degrees and could be used as substitutes for box hedges, Mrs Beeton and her love of Inca Berries or Physallis…

physalis, inca berries

Image sourced from James Wong’s website

He talked about growing gojiberries in compost bins, mushrooms in old BT phone books and sweet micro greens from popcorn.

Is it worth growing one swede for £200? 

Most importantly, James talked about what not to grow – in his opinion – because it simply wasn’t worth the effort financially.  He cited the example of his friend Nathan – an urban foodie with the Hunter wellies, the designer seed packets and an allotment which he drives to.  All the gear and clearly no idea! Like most of us who watch gardening shows on and off and think it’s easy to be like Tom and Barbara Good.

But add up all those potato bags, sticks, compost and hours of labour.  Is it really worth growing the basics like potatoes and swede when these can be sourced from British Farmers at reasonable prices in abundance? Why not rather grow the botanicals which cost more in British supermarkets because they are having to be sourced from overseas – cutting your spend and the Earth’s fuel costs in one go.  I’d never thought about it before but it makes total sense.

Take wasabi for example. I love wasabi.  I don’t mean the disgusting green stuff you get with sushi, which contains mostly horseradish, mustard and artificial colourings, but the wonderful root that I knew from my time living in Japan that was slightly sweet on the tongue.


Image sourced from James Wong’s website

Well wasabi plants apparently love cool, wet and overcast climates.  A bit like my Frittillaria, they’d then be perfect in my little shady, damp spot just outside the back door!

Captivated and inspired to start my own Homegrown Revolution

It was revelations like this that captured my interest for the entire two hour talk.    James was kind enough to sign his book for me at the end and we had a little chat about baking too – Baking and Great British Bake Off fans may remember him in Celebrity Bake Off last year.

My signed copy of Homegrown Revolution

His book exudes his enthusiasm for his craft.  I’ll do a full review once I’ve had a go at some of the projects but so far I love the clear explanations, the information about plant origins and nutrition and the snippets of recipes that sit alongside detailed (but not boring) growing instructions.

It was a lovely start to my botanical birthday and was complimented by great botanical Gin Infusions and Saffron Champagne Cocktails.   Thank you to James and Clifton Nurseries for a wonderful evening.

Disclaimer – I attended this event on my own initiative and paid for my ticket which was a very reasonable £5.  I chose to write about this and have not been paid or requested by James or Clifton Nurseries to do so.  



22 responses to “A Botanical Birthday

  1. A very happy birthday for yesterday! I must admit gardening isn’t my thing although I like sitting looking at the results of someone else’s hard work very much😉


    • LOL! I like the idea of James’s style of gardening. It looks easy. I think your soon might like the popcorn growing. Same process as cress but tastier! We’ve planted ours today.


  2. Sounds like a great way to spend your birthday! I’ve borrowed the Homegrown Revolution book from the library on the recommendation of another blogger friend, but I think I’m going to have to get a copy to keep – it’s just brilliant. So many things to try growing next year…


  3. Sounds like you had a lovely day!

    Although I see his point about not growing things you can buy cheaply, I find it hugely satisfying to enjoy one’s own potatoes and the advantage for me is in growing varieties that one can’t readily find in the supermarket. The other aspect, for vegetables like leeks, which are also cheap in season, is that we can pull them up only minutes before cooking. Ultimate freshness!

    That said, we’ve been planning a larger herb garden (since the previous one died a death a couple of years back) so we’ll do both.

    Good to know about wasabi…


    • He did talk about some potatoes that are like the small anya ones which sounds nice. Agree on your point re freshness. Loved picking lettuce and rocket from our window boxes this summer


  4. I am with you on growing things that are expensive to buy, esp micro leaves. I will be having a go with the notoriously tricky shiso. I’m not sure about goji berries in compost bins though ;D


  5. What a fabulous birthday gift, I think this is a book I will have to add to my Christmas list.


  6. You dont have to be a foodie to feel James’s ideas are truly revolutionary. I’m a history buff. And from what you said, James’s project says a lot about culture, history, ethnicity, and colonialism. He reminds us that foods we think of as truly ‘British’ (potatoes, tomatoes) are often New World foods. And that foods that originated in the same far-flung places as potatoes and tomatoes once were considered ‘British’, and were once sold or cultivated widely here; but through random decisions of those in power, are now considered ‘foreign’, or even ‘tropical’, when actually they grow best in wet soggy cool climes like the UK.


  7. Wonderful post. You have made me think about my own gardening practices – and what not to grow. One thing i did grow this year, and felt very proud of, was celery. In Australian you usually have to buy a whole bunch, or if you’re lucky a half bunch. But i only ever seem to need one stick, two tops! I was forever composting leftover rotting celery. When i grew my own i could pick it a stick at a time. Some of my fellow gardeners at the community garden we attend, shared in the harvest too, taking a stick of celery whenever they needed it. Thanks for your inspirational post.


  8. What a lovely way to spend your birthday Urvashi. So pleased you chose something so nice and relaxing to do. Many happy returns and another book to add to the Christmas list for me xxx


  9. I have this book, am a great fan of James Wong (and Mark Diacono, another unusual crop grower) and would have loved to attend this talk. I’ve now signed up for Clifton Nurseries newsletters so hopefully won’t miss events like this in the future. Thanks for bringing this to my attention – and good luck with your veggie choices and growing for next year!


  10. A belated Happy Birthday…..I just popped over to wish you a very happy New Year! Love Karen xxxx


  11. Pingback: Plans and Plots « I Made it!

  12. Pingback: Strawberries – Growing My Own | The Botanical Baker

I love reading your comments. Thanks so much for taking time to leave one

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s