Aspirin for tomatoes, jasmine water for berries, molasses for roots and aluminium foil to boost the yield of peppers? Meet UK ethnobotanist James Wong.
It's hardly your typical gardening advice, yet all the above ideas have been scientifically validated, as Wong (www.jameswong.co.uk) discovered when researching his latest book Grow for Flavour, which is set to truly revolutionise home fruit and vegetable growing.
What prompted this search for ways to increase flavour in home-grown food? The original idea stemmed from personal frustration. I noticed that the No.1 promise of growing your own given by gardening media was better flavour, yet as a botanist I knew that – paradoxically – most traditional horticultural advice conspires to do the exact opposite. Essentially, it’s geared to boost yield at any cost, often directly watering down flavour as a consequence. Much of this advice is also out of date, or even directly at odds with scientific understanding. I thought gardeners deserved better! I hunted for a book specifically devoted to helping people get measurably better flavour, primarily for my own self-interest being a keen gardener. There were none. So I decided to remedy the situation.
You read over 2,000 research papers – that's dedication! Is more work being done on this issue now? We’re living in quite an exciting time for flavour-focused growers. For the first time in decades there is increased interest in improving the flavour and nutritional value of crops, instead of just yield and shelf life. This has largely come from generally valid complaints from consumers about crops like tomatoes and strawberries not tasting like they used to. This pressure is driving new research, which ultimately means new discoveries for home growers.
What were the most revelatory findings? Essentially, by doing less work you achieve better flavour – and often nutrition. Many flavour compounds in plants are produced as defence chemicals to protect them in times of stress. Applying more stress to these plants - for example, reducing watering and fertilising, or not applying pesticides - can mean less work, less expense and tastier results. Not a bad deal really!
How difficult is it for people to eschew outdated ‘conventional wisdom’? It can be very tricky, especially in Britain. We tend to have the ingrained idea that in gardening “old” and “traditional” are synonyms for “better”. However, this is not always the case. Some heirloom varieties, for instance, taste truly terrible and many techniques used by our grandparents are, frankly, useless. People often don't like to hear this, so there can be some quite passionate resistance to new ideas. The great thing about science is its objectivity. Science doesn't care whether something sounds romantic or not; it simply assesses whether it works. It often validates crazy-sounding old-school ideas that many dismiss as old wives tales, but it also busts some of the longest-held myths that everyone takes for gospel. This rigorous testing means one thing to home growers: you achieve better results and don't waste your time and money.
How can improved flavour relate – in some cases – to improved nutrition? Our sense of flavour is essentially a combination of taste, smell and touch that has evolved to detect chemicals in food. These include sugars, fats, acids and some vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. As a very general rule, the stronger something tastes, the more nutrients it’s likely to contain. That watery, crunchy tomato from the supermarket, for example, is likely to be less nutrient-dense than a sweeter, richer-flavoured one. And the best way to control flavour is, of course, growing your own.
The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) conducted many trials on your findings. Can you talk about this? Working with the RHS was a great opportunity. It meant, for example, we could trial hundreds of pear varieties for the book instead of just a handful. They also provided three layers of fact-checking, running everything by their science teams to ensure the rigour of the claims in the book are as firm as possible.
Many ideas in your book are really inexpensive. Does this surprise people? Well, there is no point in spending a fortune to make crops tastier. I recently read some gardening advice, for example, that required such frequent doses of fertiliser that the cost far outweighed the value of tomatoes it produced. The logic of this escapes me. While people haven't – so far – been surprised at the low cost of these tips, I think they might be surprised by their unusual nature. Spraying aspirin onto tomatoes isn't exactly a staple of every gardening book – but it certainly works!
Your comments on the importance of using organic methods in the kitchen garden? I am mostly an organic grower, apart from a couple of things like aspirin sprays. This is partly because it’s less work and partly because it can give better results by creating plants that are more stressed, as we talked about earlier. However, I’m not fanatical about it, or judgemental about people who are not organic growers.
James' top tips
1. Select the right variety.
2. Don't over water.
3. Don't over fertilise.
4. Learn how to store produce correctly.
5. Grow plants in full sun (for most crops).
6. Learn how to prune (the RHS has some excellent books on the subject*).
7. Thin out fruit as much as you can.
8. Look after your soil.
9. Consider using growth regulators, such as seaweed extract and aspirin.
10. Learn to play with light by using red mulch and aluminium foil.
* Author’s note: another book, also recently published, makes a valuable companion piece: Ann Ralph’s Grow a Little Fruit Tree offers techniques that keep fruit trees to a manageable size and so enables gardeners with limited space to plant them.
Weird – but they work!
Aspirin spray: Dissolve one quarter to one half of a 300mg soluble aspirin tablet in one litre of water and spritz over tomato plants once a month during summer.
Grow peppers over aluminium foil: US studies in the 1970s found this resulted in 85 percent more fruit and considerably less aphid damage.
Molasses tonic: Dissolve 500 grams of molasses (buy in bulk from an animal feed store) in nine litres of water and drench over your crops during summer at the rate of one litre per square metre to boost the beneficial bacteria and fungi and nutrient content of the soil.
Jasmine water: Spritzing this onto your plants just before harvest provides a flavour and nutritional boost.