For me, it’s all about greed. I love to cook, and aim to discover and grow less familiar plants that are star ingredients in the kitchen. Here’s my pick of current favourites from my new book The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing & Cooking in the City. All pack punchy flavour, are easy to grow, demand little space and are often difficult or expensive to buy in the shops.
GREEN SHISO (Perilla frutescens)
A recent discovery, green shiso is a key herb in Japanese cuisine – like basil in Italy, or coriander in Mexico. It’s an annual with intensely fragrant, jaggedy leaves which can grow to the size of a small plate but are best picked smaller.
When cooking, experiment by adding green shiso leaves when you might use basil or mint, for example in a tomato salad. They also make an excellent frozen granita or infused vodka for martinis. The shredded leaves are delicious in fried rice and integral to Japanese dishes such as sashimi.
Sow the seed in late spring, at a similar time to basil. It can tricky to germinate: refrigerate the seed then sow into moist, warm soil or compost at around 20ºC. It requires some light to germinate, so surface sow. I cover with a light sprinkle of fine vermiculite or sharp sand. Use a puffer spray to keep boost humidity during germination.
Note that purple shiso is also available but is less vibrant in flavour and more of a decorative plant. In Japan, it’s used in the preparation of ume pickled apricots.
MOUSE MELONS (Melothria scabra)
This easy climber hails from Central America, and is an excellent choice for space-efficient vertical growing. The taste is best described as a crunchy mini-cucumber with a gentle hint of lemon. The gorgeous green shiny skin is lightly speckled.
Grow in a similar fashion to a cucumber, providing a supporting structure on which they can climb. They are excellent eaten fresh, perhaps dipped in a few flakes of sea salt, or in salads, quick pickles or children’s lunch boxes.
MUSTARDS (Brassica juncea)
Wildly diverse, mustards are grown widely in Asia but the leaves are less well-known as an ingredient in Europe where it is the condiment, made from the crushed seeds, that is most popular.
I grow mustards to perk up salads, as they offer a spicy kick and glorious colour – from vibrant greens to sultry purples. Some varieties are superior to others: try Green in Snow, Red Giant, Golden Streaks and Dragon’s Tongue. Mustards are hardy annuals and biennials that thrive in the cooler months. Avoid growing in mid-summer when they will rapidly bolt. Their pungency increases as the leaves grow in size, so pick young for a milder flavour.
LEMON VERBENA (Aloysia citriodora)
This overlooked plant is the fragrant queen of the herb patch. Rub the leaves and you release the most sublime and uplifting citrus aroma. To me, it’s one of the ultimate multi-sensory plants. A deciduous perennial, lemon verbena will die back in winter then return in spring. In cooler climates, it may require protection in the coldest months.
Use the leaves in herb teas, salads, compotes, custards, sorbets or even in a Gin Smash, one of my favourite cocktails. When establishing the plant, pinch back the growing tips to make it more compact and bushy.
Finally, a few words of gentle warning inspired by personal experience. Having trialed dozens of so-called ‘edible’ plants, I feel many disappoint so be ruthlessly pragmatic with your choices.
In my climate, for example, it’s technically possible to grow lemongrass, but it takes years to bulk up. So I buy it instead, saving space for a more rewarding crop.
With heritage and heirloom varieties, it’s all too easy to get carried away by their intriguing names and romantic stories. There are some real gems, for sure, but some varieties dwindled in popularity for good reason.
What’s more, if you’re growing in the urban environment, space is at a premium – so always focus on plants that deliver the most flavour and yield from a smaller plot.
The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing & Cooking in the City by Tom Moggach is published by Kyle Books, £16.99.
Tom is a horticultural trainer and food writer based in London.