Eat Your Front Garden
There are towns in the USA where people are forbidden by law from growing vegetables in their front gardens. Those who do so can be charged with committing a misdemeanour, and even, in theory, jailed. In some places you can not only be compelled to put your front down to lawn, but even to keep it mown to a specified, statutory height.
Here in Britain, we perhaps live in a generally more liberal state, with greater tolerance of eccentricity and more respect for the rights of the individual. Even so, I once a knew a man who was ordered by his landlord to stop growing carrots in the window-boxes of his rented flat because vegetables "made the property look scruffy." (I'm glad to say that he replaced the carrots with nasturtiums, which are just about the most wholly edible plants on earth.)
But although in this country we don't need to fear a knock on the door from a local authority enforcement officer, there are still plenty of reasons why people might be shy about openly filling their front gardens with vegetables.
Most obviously, there's simple conformism; if all your neighbours plant up their fronts with grass and shrubs, tarmac and shingle, you might feel that devoting yours to broccoli and onions, spuds and beans, would mark you out as odd. We British might tolerate eccentricity - but only in other people, thank you, not in ourselves.
There are more practical objections, too. If your front garden looked like a veg patch, would that have an unwanted effect on property prices? The price of your property, that is, or - mortifyingly - the price of your neighbour's property?
Would out-front cabbages be tempting to passing thieves, or vandals? And then, of course, there are plenty of tenants with unsympathetic landlords, like my friend with the carrots.
At the same time, I know a lot of people who would like to grow some food in the front - because the front garden is sunnier or more sheltered than the back garden, or because the back isn't big enough to feed their family and they've already spent three years on the waiting list for an allotment, or because they are home-grow fanatics who grind their teeth in frustration every time they think of all that wasted space. Or simply because the front garden is the only garden they've got.
This book, and the idea of the "invisible allotment," is aimed at all those people. It offers some suggestions for edible plants that can easily be smuggled into ostensibly ornamental gardens, and detailed advice on how to grow and eat them. These are crops that you can grow without scandalising the neighbours. Your front garden won't look like an allotment, but you'll still get significant amounts of food out of it.
There are plants here which are bona fide, universally acknowledged ornamentals - sold and grown for looking at - but which, to many people's surprise, have edible parts. You may well already have some of these plants in your front garden, which will give you a head-start (and save a few quid).
Then there are species which are grown as ornamentals in this country, but which are considered vegetables back in their homelands. Hosta is a good example; in Japan it's grown as an agricultural crop, not as a herbaceous perennial with colourful leaves.
Finally, I've included some lesser-known edible plants which would be used as ornamentals in UK gardens, if they were used at all, like the Cinnamon Vine (Dioscorea batatas) which is a charmingly-perfumed climber - and as long as you don't tell anyone that one of its other names is Chinese Yam, then only you need ever know that every now and then you're going to dig up its roots and roast them.
So that you can look for a plant to fill a gap in your front garden, while knowing that it will also provide a crop for your invisible allotment, the book is divided into sections that relate to the ornamental use of the plant, rather than its edible use. Dahlia, for instance, is listed under Flowers, although it's the tubers that you eat.
Perhaps I should finish by briefly explaining what I haven't put in this book. I haven't included what might be called "vegetables that look nice." In my view, as a dedicated veg grower, all vegetables look nice. And I haven't, for the most part, included herbs used purely for flavouring. The plants in this book must meet two criteria: they need to be substantially, not just peripherally, edible; and they need to be unobtrusive when grown in a front garden.
In other words - we're not planting a potager. We're planting an invisible allotment.
Leaves: Japanese ginger (Zingiber mioga)
Also known as : Myoga ginger; mioga ginger; dancing crane; rang he; yang ha.
The plant: I think this might be my favourite plant in the whole book, if you don't count nasturtium which is my favourite plant in the whole world. Japanese ginger is so simple to grow, so dependable, and yet so unusual, both as a plant and as a food - at least, to British eyes, and British tastes. I really cannot understand why this isn't one of the best-known garden perennials in the country. It's a deciduous, herbaceous, clump-forming plant, native to Japan, Vietnam, China and Korea, and in the same genus as ginger. Occasionally used as an ornamental in the UK, it's a widely-grown food crop in Japan, where its flower buds are a common sight in supermarkets.
Ornamental value : Present from late spring or early summer until mid-autumn its lush, vibrant green, lance-shaped leaves reach about 15 inches (38cm) in length, carried on numerous stems 3 feet (1m) tall.
My myoga have never flowered, but I have heard reports of this plant flowering in the UK. The flowers look like small orchid blooms, pale yellow and fragrant.
How to start : Japanese ginger grows from rhizomes, so any time in spring either buy a new plant - several online nurseries sell it - or divide an existing clump.
A bought plant will probably arrive as a small pot with nothing obvious in it. Leave it somewhere sheltered, such as a greenhouse, bright porch or windowsill, until it is growing strongly. This could take some weeks: myoga emerges from its winter dormancy late in spring, or even early summer. Once it's up, it reaches its full height quickly.
To propagate a new plant from existing stock, I use my fingers in the soil around the old clump to locate a good-sized lump of rhizome which I then carve off from the main body using a serrated knife or small saw. This can be quite energetic work, but at least you don't have to worry about being too rough - Japanese ginger is a tough plant that won't suffer from indelicate handling.
Plant the new division into an ordinary plastic pot big enough to take it easily, in multi-purpose compost or good soil. Later in the summer, when it's growing strongly, plant it out.
Growing : Myoga is a woodland plant, often found as an understory species growing beneath trees, so in this country it does best in a fairly shady position, with dappled sunlight. My main clump is near an apple tree, which suits it perfectly. It wants a rich soil, moist but well-drained.
You don't need to take any special trouble over planting Japanese ginger. Just dig a hole so that the plant will be at approximately the same depth as it was when in its pot, firm the soil around it as you refill the hole, and water it in thoroughly. If you're growing more than one plant, put them about 18 inches (46cm) apart, bearing in mind that Japanese ginger spreads itself outwards steadily over the years.
Once the foliage is growing well, lay a mulch of garden compost, well-rotted manure, or any bought-in mulch all around the plant, a couple of inches (5cm) deep. Keep Japanese ginger well watered throughout the summer, and it will benefit from regular feeds with a liquid fertiliser, such as seaweed concentrate.
Accounts of myoga's hardiness differ, with most writers considering it near to fully hardy in a UK winter. There are some variegated cultivars for sale, which are said to be less hardy than the plain green ones. To be safe, I cover my plants with a thick layer of fallen leaves in November, but I doubt it's necessary.
To be absolutely certain of keeping your myoga through the winter you could plant it in a large tub so it can be moved under cover during the coldest months. It is, in any case, a very suitable species for growing in containers.
In autumn the leaves yellow, and then quickly die away. If the foliage hasn't gone completely by mid-November I'll cut it down, right to the ground, so as to avoid the plant getting wind-rocked.
Problems : Birds might peck at the leaves, and slugs and snails might nibble at the youngest foliage in spring, but myoga grows so rapidly that pests don't have the chance to make much impact on it. The one thing that really will damage Japanese ginger is strong wind, so be sure to plant it somewhere sheltered.
Harvest & storage : Conical flower buds (technically, they're inflorescences) appear from beneath the soil around the base of the clump in late summer or early autumn; in my garden, they start in the last week of August or the first week of September, and they'll keep coming, a few at a time, into October.
You'll find out for yourself at which stage of their growth you like them best. I take them as soon as their tips show above ground, cutting them beneath the surface (a bit like harvesting asparagus). Left a day or so longer, until they're just starting to open, they'll reach the size of a man's thumb. Myoga buds are lovely looking things, coloured green, white and pinkish-red.
As for storage, they'll keep for a few days in the fridge, in a plastic food bag, or "green bag" (see p.xx), but are definitely at their best when used fresh.
Eating : I like to eat "children of myoga," as they're apparently known in Japan, just as they are, either on their own or in salads, or cooked very briefly in stir-fries. The flavour is recognisably gingery, but without ginger's heat. The texture is juicy, fresh and crunchy.
In their native lands they are variously shredded, for use in soups, tofu dishes, and salads; pickled; and used in sushi and tempura.
Unlike root ginger, this plant has inedible rhizomes. As well as the buds, the Japanese also eat the blanched spring shoots; I've never tried them, as, in our relatively short British growing season, I want to give my Japanese ginger as much chance as possible to concentrate its energy on producing a maximum crop of buds. I really love those buds.