I’ve always been a bit of a fan of weird and wonderful food plants. I love to forage in the woodland and hedgerows for ingredients to transform our diet and am fascinated by the food plants still used by native civilisations. Quinoa, amaranth, maize, potatoes, tomatoes, chillies and many more valuable crops were brought to our shores by plant hunters and explorers that saw the value of these food plants in other continents. Back here in the UK, our native plants also provide valuable ingredients; Early nettles, garlic mustard, chickweed and wild garlic are all fabulous additions to soups, stir fries and winter fare. Add a few leaves to a loaf of bread, cheese scones, or a pie for that wild harvest flavour that little else compares too. Roots and shoots still provide sustenance to foragers that know their botany and find their way to the tables of high-end restaurants and hotels.
Greenhouse growers can join the throng and enjoy more unusual plants for their daily fare. The greenhouse plays its part, providing sweet early pea shoots, micro leaves, broad bean shoots and herbs, all pushed into growth by the kinder environs within the greenhouse glass, to flavour and vitaminise spring recipes and menus.
At this time of year a few fresh shoots are enough to add huge fresh flavour, but a virtual salad bar of pots of seedlings, all ready to harvest can create a tasty, regular, fresh salad for two or three or a garnish for many more.
Early sown spinach soon spurts into life, especially when sown in gritty, loamy seed compost under greenhouse protection. A few warm days and it bursts into growth and tiny, perfectly formed plants form within the seed leaves. Each new leaf can be carefully harvested with a sharp cuttings knife or secateurs; this gentle harvest pruning seems to encourage more leaves as long as you are not too eager and don’t damage the centre or cut off too many too soon. While wilted spinach disappears into tiny, tiny morsels, there’s something quite tactile about fresh and raw baby spinach leaves carefully extricated from the mother plants. Each perfect, heart shaped leaf has texture, substance and flavour left raw on the plate. Sow pots every week to feed the family and very soon they will be burgeoning plants providing a healthy fresh harvest almost daily. Plant them out too so that you have a continuous crop and keep sowing.
Full of flavour
Mustards are another of my favourite early spring greenhouse crops, hardy, tasty and easy to grow, pots of these hot herby leaves are the mainstay of spring salads and pep up sandwiches and salads with just a few leaves.
This season I’m rather taken with the range of exotics on offer from Suttons Seeds. James Wong will be at the Edible Garden Show this weekend (http://www.theediblegardenshow.co.uk), showcasing the new Homegrown Revolution Plant Range. They don’t necessarily need greenhouse care, but they are bound to benefit from a little protection in their early growth. The range includes cardamom, with beautiful edible leaves, perfect for a real cup of spicy chai tea and there’s even a tea plant to add the essential tealeaves. Don’t miss the tiny, grape sized watermelons called Cucamelons, and the Cocktail kiwis (Actinidia arguta), delicious, sweet miniature fruits. Or have a grow with Wasabi, it’s almost worth its weight in gold and has amazing power and flavour.
The new plant range is an extension of the seed range; seeds of course are an ideal way for greenhouse gardeners to grow en masse. There are some really great plants in the range some like the electric daisies will fascinate the kids and could inspire a whole new generation of ethno botanists. Remember Space Dust that fizzed, popped and crackled on your tongue? Well the flowers of this plant, when eaten do something similar, a sort of electric fizzing effect. Traditionally it was used for toothache, but it makes a good party trick and it’s a great looking plant as well.
Stevia seed is also in this range. It’s a plant that has been used for generations as a natural sweetener and has no calories and no known side effects. Apparently it’s not approved for human consumption, so you will have to grow it as an oddity. It needs early warmth to germinate, so a greenhouse with propagator is the perfect place to get it growing. It’s hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and is a fascinating example of plant power.
Keep your greenhouse full of fascinating plants this summer to spice up your menus and learn more and more about the precious and amazing world of plants.