James Wong – growing for flavour and talking for Britain!

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Wednesday saw me back at Ventnor Botanic Garden for a talk by James Wong,

The talk was entitled ‘Growing for flavour’ and, bearing in mind the two things I’ve grown following recommendations from him (Electric Daises and Cucamelons from his ‘Homegrown Revolution’ book) I’ve been less than Impressed with, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Well, suffice to say he is my new gardening crush.  Not only was his speech incredibly interesting and informative, but it was well delivered and laugh out loud funny too.

He has recently been writing a book in conjunction with the RHS about growing for flavour, and this talk was based on the research behind his writing.  As he made clear, he is not a hortculturalist, he is a botanist and his whole approach is science and evidence based.

To start with, he debunked the idea that taste is subjective – studies have shown for example that the range of sweetness or saltiness humans like is really very narrow (sugar percentage in the range 8-10%, with the salt percentage even narrower).  We may think we have a ‘sweet tooth’ but the variation really is quite limited.  He also mentioned that brain scans of people eating foods with the ‘holy grail’ 50/50 sugar/fat ratio show pleasure receptors lighting up in a similar fashion to heroin users.  Surely Krispy Kremes have to be safer than that?

Furthermore, something as fundamental as your liking for coriander turns out to be genetic, not ‘taste’.   People with a certain gene (up to 20% of the population depending on ethnicity) taste a mixture of soap and bleach when they eat coriander.  And there was me thinking my nephew was making a fuss!

So, to the growing.  I couldn’t possibly capture everything said, but here are a few points I noted

  • Choose the right varieties.  Genetics is key – however well grown, you cannot make a poor variety taste good, so choose carefully.
  • Leaving foods such as butternut squash, pumpkins, tomatoes and strawberries for a few days before eating (NOT in the fridge), substantially increases sweetness – for strawberries, for example, up to 700% in 4 days.
  • Using dissolved aspirin on plants to makes them think they’re under attack.  The plants produce tastier fruits in the hope they will be able to reproduce.  An example was watering tomatoes with 1/4 to 1/2 an aspirin tablet dissolved in a litre of water, three times during the growing season.  Other studies have suggested for different plants you just need to soak the seeds in the aspirin solution prior to planting, to enjoy the same beneficial effect.
  • Using Methyl jasminate (Jasmine water) to spray on buds has a similar effect
  • Mulching tomatoes and strawberries with red plastic, not black.  The science behind this is all to do with the colour of the reflected light.  Apparently the light reflected off red is actually green, which replicates the light reflected off competing (green) weeds.  Again, this tricks the plants to think they’re under attack when they are not.
  • Growing tomatoes as a single truss.  Apparently this was a method discovered in the UK, exported to Japan and then largely forgotten back in the UK.  Plants are ‘stopped’ after one truss has set fruit by removing all side shoots, as well as the growing tip.  Consequently the plant puts all its energy into ripening the one truss.  There are a number of advantages – you can cram in many more plants in the same area and therefore the yield is similar, but the plants need less attention as there is no staking/tying in/ side shoot pinching to worry about and instead, with all energy focussed on one truss, the flavour of that truss is significantly enhanced.
  • Watering with mollasses.  This has been found to dramatically increase beneficial soil bacteria.  The logic is that plants make their own sugar during photosynthesis, so if you water with a sugar solution early in a plant’s life, it will accelerate their establishment.  James suggested if you’re planting bare root trees, for example, you should dig a square hole, firm the plant in and water with a molasses solution – no stake, no mycorrhizal fungi, no fuss!

Modest chap that he is, James never mentioned the name of the book, nor its publication date, but I, for one, will be at the front of the queue.

And to finish, a few lovely blooms from a sunny, post talk stroll at VBG.

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