Grow Your Own Meals with Gardening Editor Carolyn Ernst

In a recent training session with some of my tourist staff, who do not have TV or read newspapers on a regular basis, I realised that many of the “topics of the day’ are fuelled by the media and are unknown to many people from our lush tropics.

It took me many hours to explain such issues as; food security, aging populations, biodiversity, global warming and greenhouse gases. I can however understand the difficulty in understanding the issue of food security, when the next meal is hanging on the tree next to you.  You might wonder what sparked all this; well it was the reasons for the increased popularity of tropical fruit.

You may or may not remember when everyone had a vegetable garden at the bottom of the garden and the many memories, good or bad, that come from the hours spent tending them and picking garden-ripe vegetables for the family table.  I can remember my mother commenting on how poorly the peas were producing one year, little did she know the hours I spent crouched behind the row of corn consuming my favourite, freshly picked peas, the empty pods carefully hidden under a big pile of grass at the garden edge.

These large family gardens are now less common, with smaller house sections, high-rise buildings and disappearing free time.

To counter this trend we have the aging population with more free time in their retirement years and an increased awareness of health and fitness issues.  We are now seeing a resurrection of family food production but there are however many differences.  The smaller house plots and the move to warmer climates, has meant that the traditional vegetable garden is not quite what we remember.

The ‘Edible Garden’ has changed, the limited space means that many of the plants that we grow need to have multiple uses, they not only need to look good but taste good as well.  Sometimes there is not room for the strict separation of vegetable and flower gardens and so if we want both, they need to grow together and while this is not a new concept, the vegetable garden needs to look great as well.  The changes in the foods we eat, and the warmer climate where some of us now live, means that the plants that we want and can grow, have changed.

This article is the first of a series that will look at some of these issues.

I will start with the multiple uses of plants and how fruit, herbs and vegetable plants can look great in the flower garden as well.

I think one of my favourite examples is a hedge plant in Vanuatu, called ‘Nannalaus’ forgive the spelling, I was never good at it. Thanks to Arno King and the Sub Tropical Gardening Magazine (essential reading for anyone in warm climates) I now know the proper name; ‘Golden Aralia’ or Polyscias filicifolia. This plant is a true gem, it not only wants to be hedge-shaped (do you realise the amount of time spent pruning a round plant to make it look like a hedge) but it strikes readily from a cutting  and it also tastes great, sautéed with onion and a little soya sauce it is delicious.  Also, by the way, did I mention, it looks great? And I have been thrilled to find some great varieties growing here in Vanuatu. The leaf colours range from yellow to red and fine lacy leaves to monster flag sized pennants flying in the breeze. Not all suitable for a hedge but looking good in their own right.

If you need a palm, why not try a coconut palm. The uses for the nut and other part of the palm are endless.  It is so important to the lives of some people in Asia, that a new coconut is planted at the birth of every child.  Often called the ‘tree of life’ this palm is not only good to eat, but is also a refreshing drink, with the juice successfully used during WW2 for an intravenous glucose replacement when supplies had run out. The leaves can be woven to make cloth, the trunk for building and sometimes drums and the oil for cooking, cosmetics and soaps, to name but a few. There are also other palms that produce edible fruits as well, the Peach Palm or Bactris gasipaes and the Jelly Palm or Butea capitata.

Mint and other herbs make great ground covers although mint needs to be watched, it can sometimes be a lot more vigorous than we need. Basil comes in many different colours and flavours and the resulting fragrance when you brush against it during your garden stroll, is a real bonus.

In Vanuatu, the common island cabbage, (Aibika or Abelmoschus manihot) found in every village garden comes in a huge range of leaf colours and shapes, all edible and all look great in the garden bed. If you need a screening plant, look no further than banana, here in the Pacific the varieties are endless and who would believe the colours shapes and tastes of the common old banana. (See this month’s food section on page 60 for delicious recipes.)

The mind boggles at the choices of a shade tree. One of my favourites is star apple or Chrysophyllum cainito. This grows to a lovely medium sized tree, does not have invasive roots and the leaves are a beautiful green with a velvety bronze underside. The bonus is the delightful crop of green or purple fruit every year.

Some common flowers are also good to eat; daylilies and nasturtiums make a lovely colourful addition to salads. Lemongrass is a great clumping grass with a distinctive pink/grey tinge to the leaves that looks good in the garden, it is also an essential to many Asian dishes, and do not forget the claims that it is a natural mosquito repellent.

The examples are endless but the next time you need a plant or tree to fill that gap, remember that it could not only look good but could taste good as well.