In a twist on turning lemons into lemonade, Mark Diacono comes close to saying that when the world hands us climate change, we should make Chilean guava gin.
In the introduction to his lushly photographed new book, “The Food Lover’s Garden: Amazing Edibles You Will Love to Grow and Eat,” Diacono writes: “What a sweetly virtuous circle that climate change should allow us the possibility of growing many of the foods we currently import, and that we can take advantage of that shift to help arrest its progress.”
Yes, Diacono is telling us to stop worrying and learn to love climate change. And there is a certain Strangelovian logic to it, because if we grow formerly exotic foods such as Carolina allspice, Sichuan pepper and Chilean guava in our own backyards, we will reduce our food carbon footprint by cutting back or eliminating packaging and overseas transportation.
Grow your own global produce
Diacono not only talks the talk, he walks the walk. As head gardener at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage enterprises for many years, he grew edible plants of all sorts and taught others how to take them “from plot to plate” — or as we would say on this side of the pond, from farm to table. Diacono now devotes himself full time to his own Otter Farm in Devon, in southwest England.
Although Diacono’s introduction to “The Food Lover’s Garden” places gardening in the larger context of climate change, peak oil, peak phosphate and other global concerns, the book itself is not a treatise on food politics or the environment. Rather it is part gardening handbook and part cookbook — a chatty, often cheeky, user-friendly guide to choosing, growing and then cooking your own favorite foods.
Diacono believes that life is too short (and often gardens too small) to plant anything but what you are truly passionate about eating. At the outset, Diacono dismisses the “boring” vegetables that you can get easily and cheaply at any grocery store, such as potatoes and cabbage, and advises us to instead plant the exotic fruits, vegetables, nuts and spices he loves.
While I respectfully disagree with Diacono about potatoes and cabbage being boring, that is actually the point of this book: You read about what excites Diacono, then you decide what turns you on — in the garden and in the kitchen — and plant accordingly.
Let flavor be your guide
“The Food Lover’s Garden” starts at the endpoint, with whatever tastes you love, then takes you back to the beginning, to choosing and planting those foods in your garden. Diacono first recommends making a wish list, letting flavor alone be your guide. Then he suggests growing things you can’t find in the store, and choosing plants that will provide you with food in every season. Finally, he suggests balancing “certainties” (easy to grow even if you don’t have a green thumb or great soil) with “gambles.”
Scanning “The Food Lover’s Garden” table of contents, I saw that about half of the plants would be bad gambles in the Midwest where I live, and throughout most of the United States. Neither Diacono nor his publisher make mention of U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones, but I did a little research and found what I suspected, that many of the plants Diacono raves about will survive only in Zone 8 and higher — the far southern states, and areas moderated by the Pacific in the western states.
Devon, where Diacono lives and farms, has always been known for its mild climate, even in pre-climate change centuries. That’s great for him, but his book is a bit of a cruel tease for the rest of us — unless, of course, climate change goes into very high gear in the very near future. But there are still a dozen or more hardy and delicious plants that Diacono recommends, such as sorrel, rhubarb, lovage, nasturtiums, mizuna and asparagus.
And no matter where you live and garden, even if you are only an armchair gardener, this book is a wonderful invitation to live adventurously and expand your gardening, cooking, and eating horizons. At the same time, by growing and eating more local foods, Diacono writes, “you’ll be casting your vote for a new way of feeding ourselves and for the future.”
Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.
Top photo composite:
Mark Diacono. Credit: Jason Ingram
Book jacket for “The Food Lover’s Garden.” Credit: Courtesy of Timber Press
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