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**Growing Unusual Vegetables: weird and wonderful vegetables and how to grow them – Simon Hickmott. EcoLogic Books, Bristol. (2003)**
Potatoes, Runner Beans, Tomatoes; all run-of-the-mill vegetables these days, but all were once considered unusual. People used to grow Runner Beans purely as an ornamental and the first Potatoes grown in Europe produced such scrawny crops that it is only thanks to the pioneering work of the plant breeders who recognised its potential that we can now enjoy the Potato as a staple.
In these days of Multinationals buying up seed companies, privatising the breeding of seeds and foisting unpopular GM seeds on a sceptical public, you might think that the tradition of small plant breeders trialling and breeding new varieties of plants is long gone. But there is a small but vibrant scene of people working, almost always without any funding, driven by a passion for local food self-reliance and a fascination with unusual edible plants.
One such body is Future Foods in Somerset (UK), who for the past ten years or so have trialled and supplied seeds for many different plants. Now their proprietor, Simon Hickett, has brought together over ninety of the unusual vegetables he feels have the most promise as edible crops in our cool temperate climate. Although the term ‘unusual’ might not apply to some of the vegetables featured here, most are almost certainly new to most gardeners, and open up a fascinating new array of plants for even the most seasoned gardener.
Divided into greens, roots, fruits, seeds, grains, and flavours, the book covers over ninety plants. There is a variety of Spinach that also grows a small strawberry-like fruit, a strain of Water Chestnut that will grow in our climate, some fascinating tubers like Yams, Yacons and Sweet Potatoes, all of which, with more research and breeding, could help reduce our dependence on the blight-prone Potato, Tomatillos (like Tomatoes but the fruit that salsa should really be made from), another Tomato-like fruit that grows on a tree (called, rather unsurprisingly, the ‘Tree Tomato’!), and it was news to me that you can eat a Sunflower like you eat Globe Artichokes.
I loved this book. It is written with such a passion and really broadens the gardener’s horizons. I am now looking forward to next Spring when I can try Chinese Yams, Skirret (the original Carrot), and Yacon. If I have one teensy criticism of the book it is that it could have done with photos of what the plants look like when they are ready to harvest. I grew Quinoa and Chickpeas last year, but never having seen a mature example of each plant I didn’t know when to harvest them!
The obvious question with this book is how does it compare to Ken Fern’s book, ‘Plants For A Future’, the authoritative and essential guide to edible and useful plants. ‘Plants For A Future’ covers a huge range of plants, though not generally in sufficient detail to really enable you to grow any of them, focussing instead on their uses. Hickott’s book takes the most promising unusual plants (most of which make an appearance in ‘Plants For A Future’) and gives you all the detailed information and all the encouragement you need to be able to go out and grow them. This is a refreshing and mind-expanding book that any gardener will enjoy. The sequel will need to be a cookbook for what to do with all the things once they’re grown! As in the case of the pioneering plant breeders 300 years ago without whose vision we’d have no Potatoes, read this book and you could, in your own back garden, be helping to shape a more healthy and diverse diet for our great-grandchildren.