It’s the wrong shape! Should it be that colour? I think it could be an alien!”
In my opinion these are all good things to hear from the kids – at least when the comments are directed towards vegetables.
You see if there’s one thing my children like in the garden it’s something just a little bit different. After years of sitting through show and tell at school they recognise the appeal of the downright odd.
You’ll see this yourself if you take anyone under-12 seed shopping. Once they’ve riffled through the packets to find the biggest (giant sunflowers, monster pumpkins) and the brightest (flowers in eye-searing shades) they’ll inevitably plump for the weird.
And of course growing anything edible is always a good way to spark kids’ interest in gardening. I have a friend who has spent years toiling away in corporate PR who should qualify as one of the most jaded and cynical people in life but he regularly posts up pictures of produce from his allotment on Facebook and greets the sight of his first asparagus spears of the season with undisguised joy. If this is the effect on a world-weary man in his 40s, imagine the impact on a child?
The idea that they can plant a tiny seed, and in a few short weeks produce, not only a fully-grown plant but also something they can eat amazes kids every time. It’s like a magic trick – with added snacks.
But of course, this goes further. Why just sow run-of-the-mill carrots when you can grow purple carrots, or tiny bite-sized round ones? And why chose any old tomato when you can produce a miniature variety such as Tiny Tim or one in an unusual shade – such as the Green Zebra tomato?
One thing I sow every year with my children is kohl rabi. Why? Well firstly it’s not something you can buy in the shops, which is heartening. It seems to me a slightly demoralising exercise to spend hours sowing, tending, and nurturing a crop that you can buy for next to nothing from Tesco. Far better to chose something the supermarkets never stock.
Secondly, it’s pretty tasty. You can eat it raw in salads or coleslaw if you harvest it young enough, but we like it best as oven baked chunky chips. It has the texture of a potato with a hint of cabbage in its flavour. But ultimately we grow it because it looks so very, VERY weird. A purple globe sitting above the soil with leaf stalks emerging across it’s surface, it resembles an alien spaceship from a bad 50s Sci Fi movie.
And alongside our alien veg we are also sowing a few flowers – but of course these aren’t just any flowers – these are edible ones. Because if the kids think plants that look like spaceships are good this is nothing compared to the day they discover they can eat some flowers.
I’m not kidding myself. I don’t think it’s the subtle flavours or interesting textures that they go for. No, it’s the fact they can pull off a bright red nasturtium flower, pop it in their mouth and then yell “I’M EATING A FLOWER!” at anyone who will listen. It’s weird and there’s a touch of rebellion about it – what’s not to love?
As well as nasturiums, we sow pot marigolds, borage and cornflowers. Plus you can eat the flowers of most herbs too – they usually taste like a subtler version of their parent plant.
And for anyone who thinks this reliance on the weird and wonderful is overkill I’d say this: in a time when we’re competing with brilliantly marketed plastic toys, Wii games, PlayStations and more TV channels than ever before, we’ve never had to try so hard at selling gardening and the outdoors. And in this sort of crowded market I’ll take all the help I can get – even if it involves odd veg and crazy flowers.