Hard-working herbs and vegetables are the focus of Anna Greenland’s small urban edible garden in Oxford. From the start, she pinpointed the edible plants she loved to eat and now, after a year, the garden is an extension of her kitchen. “It’s like having a little spice cabinet,” she explains. A keen advocate of Charles Dowding’s no-dig method, Anna filled the raised beds with well-rotted manure, building the soil up from the old lawn beneath. Wooden pallets and an old bathtub helped to increase the growing space and an unwanted door was repurposed to create a cold frame where she could bring on seedlings.
Anna has lots of experience of growing edibles. She was head vegetable gardener at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford, and the kitchen garden at Soho Farmhouse, also in Oxfordshire, was her handiwork. She’s now a consultant for both. Her involvement in the taste trials at Le Manoir, gave her a clear idea of which cultivars offer the most in terms of flavour and productivity. Time, and its availability, was crucial in deciding what to grow in her garden. She avoids vegetables suited to successional sowings, such as beetroot, and large-headed, one-crop types like cauliflower, as “it wouldn’t be practical to keep sowing all through the summer”. Asparagus is also out, since “you enjoy it for two weeks of the year, but you need a big area to produce a decent amount”.
Plants that crop over a long period, such as kale and chard, went to the top of Anna’s edible plants list, along with full-flavoured leaves and herbs, such as shiso and lemon verbena, used to lift the flavour of vegetables and salads. She maximises space by growing climbing edibles such as ‘Tromboncino’ squash and cucamelons up tepees and ‘Delicata’ squash along the garden wall. In the shadier parts of the garden, she grows mint, sorrel and lemon balm. Using all parts of the plant is also important. She chose to grow celery leaf over celery because you can use the leaves, stems, roots and seeds.
In particular, Anna favours health-conscious, sustainable food, and sour flavours as an antidote to sweetness. “Flavour is headed towards realising the value of plants and all the sensations they can bring,” she says. “People are looking for that hit of what vegetables truly taste like.” See below for a few of Anna's favourite edible plants.
Key plants to grow for flavour
Aloysia citrodora (lemon verbena)
An all-star herb with a lemony, sherberty taste that is wonderful steeped in hot water as tea, infused in oil and used with fish, or used as a refreshing flavouring for sorbet. It has a divine smell that can instantly elevate your mood with a few sniffs. 2.5m. AGM. RHS H3, USDA 8a-10b.
Ligusticum scoticum (Scots lovage)
Low-growing plant with vibrant, red stems and pretty leaves. Great as attractive groundcover and works well in pots too. It gives a punchy hit of flavour, a bit like celery or parsley. Make a herb butter with the finely shredded leaves – delicious with fresh radishes. It also pairs well with eggs. You can steam the stems too, and use the seeds in biscuits or bread. Very easy to grow. 90cm.
Perilla frutescens var. purpurascens (purple-leaved beefsteak plant or purple shiso)
There is an air of intrigue about this plant, with its striking, dark-purple/red leaves and pretty little purple flowers late in the season. Perfect if you want to maximise a small space but include beautiful, structural plants. Flavour is a mixture of cinnamon and basil, a musky, bitter-sweet herb that is great in Asian dishes. Use young leaves in salads and larger leaves in stir fries, or cook in tempura batter. The leaves also produce a vibrant red dye, great for adding to pickling liquid. It is tricky getting it to germinate, but worth the effort. If you can’t get it going, Jekka McVicar sells healthy plants from her nursery (see our suppliers’ list). 1.2m.
Ocimum basilicum ‘Cinnamon’ (cinnamon basil)
I love all basil. There are many wonderful flavours besides cinnamon, including lime, lemon, Thai and so on. ‘Cinnamon’ produces lovely purple flowers. I use the leaves in summer spring rolls, and make cinnamon basil tea with a squeeze of lime. 45cm.
Solanum lycopersicum ‘Stupice’ (tomato)
This tomato produces flavoursome fruits outdoors in the British summer, which is brilliant if you have no room for a greenhouse. It tastes great – the right balance of sweet and sharp. It is an old cultivar from Czechia and crops heavily from early summer all the way through. If you are a lazy gardener, this one is great as you don’t need to pinch out all the side shoots or stake it if you don’t want to – you can just let it ramble. 2m.
Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’ (scented geranium)
Lovely for infusing delicate rose flavour into cream for panna cottas or ice creams. Also makes a beautiful syrup for drizzling over desserts. The flowers are edible and look pretty in salads or on dessert plates. Dig up and bring indoors over winter as it’s not hardy. Works well in a pot for a small space. 60cm. AGM. RHS H1C.
Cucurbita moschata ‘Tromboncino’ (squash)
A great plant for a small space as you can grow it up and over a teepee or fence. The squashes are the shape of a trombone, and can get as big, but at this size they are best used for decoration. I tend to crop them like small courgettes throughout the summer for their gentle, nutty flavour – far more delicate than a courgette. 1.2m.
Melothria scabra (cucamelon)
These are great for a small space as they produce good yields and don’t taken up much room. I grow mine up hazel pea sticks and they romp away with no intervention needed. They look like little watermelons, but have a very different taste. When you eat them, they produce a sharp, cucumber-like burst of flavour in your mouth, which makes you realise why they are also known as Mexican sour gherkins. The citrus tang and crunch makes them a perfect addition to summer salads and I love them in a salade niçoise. They also make great pickles (pickled whole), which are perfect as presents as they look so pretty. 2m.
Achillea ageratum (English mace)
This is a relatively unknown herb, but deserves a place in the herb garden, for beauty and flavour. Not to be confused with mace (the outer husk of nutmeg), it is a member of the Achillea genus. The flavour is somewhere between caraway and mint. It works well chopped into soups, stews or sausages, or with vegetables and chicken, but use it sparingly. Let it flower and you will have beautiful lemon-yellow and white blooms in summer. 45cm.
Cucurbita pepo ‘Burpee’s Golden’ (courgette)
This is a great, old, open-pollinated courgette. I love the sunshine colour of yellow courgettes – it marks summer for me. For a go-to summer dish, use raw, julienned strips in a salad with lots of mint, dill and olive oil. Because the flavour is so subtle, it is a great vehicle for adding in an abundance of herbs, oils and vinegars. The difference in flavour between
a green and yellow courgette is negligible, but the cheerful colour alone somehow improves the taste for
me, and I would argue that yellow courgettes are slightly sweeter. 75cm.
Tagetes ‘Cinnabar’ (African marigold)
A beautiful, graceful companion plant that puts on an incredible show of antique-looking flowers for the whole season. Grow with tomatoes to distract aphids. Also makes a lovely cut flower. 60cm.
Cucurbita pepo ‘Delicata’ (winter squash)
Great for a small space, as the squashes aren’t too heavy and you can train them up and over a structure. The flesh is sweet and nutty. I cut them in half, scoop out the seeds, cut into smaller slices and roast with the skin on. Lovely served with goats’ cheese and crispy sage leaves. Or simply roast the two halves and serve with lashings of butter. 60cm.