Rise of the edimental garden

Malabar spinach and Chinese orange alongside flowering begonias and daisies. The humble backyard vegetable garden moves up front

May 11, 2018 01:50 pm | Updated 02:04 pm IST

The garden, since Eden, has been a stand-in for Paradise — a lush island, sacred and sensual. The ancient Greeks grew greens and grain for consumption, but flowers were reserved for the Gods. Over time, the dividing line between the functional and the ornamental came to be demarcated by the domicile. Fronting the house was the ornamental garden, a polychromatic picture of trim hedges and fastidiously arranged flowers; behind it the vegetable garden, a pragmatic mandala of trellises of okra, beds of spinach and pocked rows of onion. Now, farm-to-fork proselytisers are rooting for the twain to meet in the progressive garden of edimentals.

The new portmanteau — uniting edible and ornamental — has been coined by the English-born Stephen Barstow, who lives in northern Norway. Barstow made a compelling case for garden-grown edibles when he put together a salad with 537 varieties of plants, all but 28 of which came from his own garden. His book, Around the World in 80 Plants: An Edible Perennial Vegetable Adventure For Temperate Climates , documents different indigenous foraging traditions, with detailed information about 80 perennial leafy green vegetables, their stories, sources, and recipes.

Eat what you grow

Edimentals endorse an assimilative approach to kitchen gardening that recommends every precious portion of land be optimally used to cultivate plants that both look and taste good. These include trees, flowering plants, herbs, vines, shrubs, succulents, ferns — essentially everything that can be consumed, and is pleasing to the eye. So you can have your kale and eat it too!

In the village of Assagaon in North Goa (incidentally called the Village of Flowers), Peter Fernandes and Rosie Harding lead by example. Practicing permaculturists, they transformed a 600 sq.m. parcel of degraded land into a bountiful farm forest, advocating cultivation that is regenerative, and consumption that is inclusive.

Which means much of what they grow can go down the gullet. Roselle for example, with its bulbous maroon calyces, is striking and makes a bold tea rich in anti-oxidants. Then there’s the butterfly pea, another tea-worthy flower whose electric blue petals also double as a food colourant. It’s hard to draw up a complete botanical list here; Peter and Rosie’s garden has around 200 types of edibles, including colocasia, amaranth, mulberry, ginger, turmeric and joyweed.

Function to the front

“The general perception is that ornamentals are the only things that have aesthetic value,” says Peter in a three-way conversation with Rosie, dialling in from France, adding, “Edibles, on the other hand, are typically grown in the back garden or on the periphery of a house, and are considered not terribly attractive. It’s a shame that we spend so much time, effort and money to create huge swathes of greenery that have no function other than appearance, when in fact a large number of edibles have enormous value.”

Although kitchen gardens have taken root in many homes and some establishments in the last few years, popular perception continues to cast food plants in biased light. “We sense a reluctance from some people to grow them because they believe the cultivation will be messy and require an inordinate investment of time and effort,” says Rosie, “For all the effort and resources that might go into the creation and maintenance of a garden or landscape, why not make absolutely sure that food, medicine, and other functional species are included? While beauty is extremely important, as is scent, we need to put every effort into creating diverse natural ecosystems that work with nature, not against it, and serve our own human needs.”

Going social

“Who needs special ornamentals when your driveway is lined with Chinese orange or lettuce beds?” remarks Sangita Wahi Mohin, advertising executive and gardening evangelist in Gurgaon. Sangita, who has greened a patch of wasteland near her home with a variety of edibles, conducts kitchen gardening workshops. She also helms an online community called Greenstreet that encourages a cross-pollination of traditional kitchen knowledge from members who’ve settled in Gurgaon from across the country. “Agastya flowers (Sesbania grandiflora) are batter-fried in Bihar, while pumpkin flowers, and the buds and blooms of shallots are cooked in Bengal,” says Sangita, referring to culturally specific edibles that are beginning to find a wider reach through online communities.

“Once you’re bent on finding edibles in your garden, you’ll discover ornamentals that are edible too. My daughter Twisha has made pesto and even chips from peppery nasturtium leaves, and salads and tea with nasturtium flowers. She sometimes adds them to pineapple and cherries or even grilled chicken, for their tang. Begonias, daisies and rose petals too can be added to salads. I even consume vinca leaves and flowers to keep a check on my thyroid,” adds Sangita.

Fresh finds

Edible flowers have found new favour on the plate thanks to food shows, like Masterchef Australia . But they add more aroma, colour and texture than flavour to a dish, concedes Chef Ajay Anand, culinary director at the Pullman and Novotel hotels at Aerocity, Delhi, who grows around 20 types of edible flowers in the 3,000 sq.ft. kitchen garden at Pullman, including lavender, petunias and pansies. “The name of our restaurant, Pluck, is a direct reference to our garden, from where the produce for the meals is plucked,” he says. The farm-to-fork concept has more than just ecological and nutritional valency, it has appetite-whetting potential as well. Before restaurant guests are shown the menu, they are shown the edimental kitchen, so as to fully appreciate the freshness and novelty of the food. And then the sour cream and flower-petal amuse-bouche is trotted out.

“In the past, the diner would set aside the sprig of parsely on top of a steak; he now newly appreciates the garnish of say, cilantro flowers, on his dish,” says Anand, who also dehydrates petals to add a hint of crunch to a meal, or powders them for colour.

Grow your own

The term ‘edimental’ is new to many, but the principles are familiar. “They may not know the word, but many want their kitchen gardens to look pretty,” points out Kapil Mandawewala, founder of the Delhi-based company Edible Routes which sets up organic kitchen gardens and edible landscapes for clients. They’ve just designed a 6,000 sq.ft. terrace garden for Raas Devigarh and Raas Jodhpur, two hotels in Rajasthan, which are “quite edimental”. “We seed a mixed planting system, with, for example, low squashes and tall corn growing together; green malabar spinach with red Amaranth; fenugreek with radish; okra with string beans; mint with chilly; coriander with tomato; spinach and brinjal…,” he explains.

Most edible plants sprout beautiful edible flowers, like mustard, radishes, carrots, asafoetida, cucumbers, squashes, gourds, onions and garlic. The scapes or buds of garlic and the flowers of the onion bloom towards the end of the life cycle of these plants, but most people typically harvest the bulbs before the flowers bloom.

Sriram Aravamudan, who co-founded the urban gardening company, My Sunny Balcony in Bangalore, says he recommends people leave a small portion of their vegetables to flower instead of harvesting them immediately. They not only add beauty to the garden, and variation to a meal, but also generate seeds for a fresh crop.

It doesn’t take a son-of-the-soil to grow an edimental garden, but some elemental knowledge of ornamentals and edibles is in order before you put down roots. The edible hyacinth bean, for example, is not to be confused with the inedible (and toxic) hyacinth flower, an altogether different species.

All said, an edimental garden would perhaps offer the most literal and perfect reading of the 4th-century philosopher, Epicurus’s words: ‘My garden does not provoke thirst through heedless indulgence, but slakes it by proferring its natural remedy. My garden does not whet the appetite; it satisfies it’.

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