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Somerset Food Trail: Edible Ornamentals [WFJ #73]
Those flowers in your garden don't just look nice – they might taste it too
Ask someone to imagine a herb, and it’d almost certainly resemble some sort of common leafy, green, aromatic, and edible plant. On briefly consulting the nearest dictionary, however – particularly the part that says ‘any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavouring food, medicine, or perfume’ – their perceptions should start to change.
42 Acres, the regenerative and agriwilding retreat eight miles out of Frome, have taken this concept to heart. Particularly, that is, via their walled garden, wherein every plant – from roses and borage, to nasturtium and calendula – is edible.
As a whole, 42 is largely inspired by what’s happening at Knepp Estate, the Sussex rewilding project which has become a living breathing model to other regenerative and rewilding initiatives, and their walled garden is no different – “I’ve seen what they're doing with their foragable garden,” 42’s head ornamental gardener Russell Riger tells The WFJ, “where as much of it is as edible as possible.”
As part of this philosophy, 42 Acres has started offering ‘Garden Grazing’ experiences, where visitors are introduced to this idea of edible ornamentals, or, as they may sometimes call them, ‘edimentals’. “We have items people will have in their gardens, but might not have thought about how to use in a culinary way,” says Russell.
Ahead of one of the first Garden Grazing tours, taking place on the 25th July as part of the Somerset Food Trail, Russell describes what edibles people might come across in 42’s walled garden, if not their own gardens this time of year. “There’ll be catmint, which flowers throughout the summer. Poppy seed is ripening up at that moment. Serviceberries will be coming in, and all sorts of edible flowers – cornflowers, nasturtiums, and marigolds.”
As Russell alludes, there’s a significant untapped resource of flavour in our backyards. Rose petals, depending on their cultivar, can be sweet, tart, or spicy; borage flowers taste like cucumber; marigolds are citrusy; while nasturtiums are peppery, not unlike radishes. Health boons are abound among foraged leaves and flowers too (catmint for instance can help cure an upset stomach), and not just for the human microbiome – as is true of 42 Acres’ general ‘soil to gut’ ethos.
“If you have a range of edibles in the garden,” says Russell, “it won't be as susceptible to pests. Hopefully at 42 Acres we can be part of that inspiration – not to dictate what people should be growing, but just showing you can have a range of flowering and edible plants in your garden that are great for biodiversity.”
As a perhaps unintended consequence of their design, gardens – and especially the walled variety in this case – are naturally conducive to an array of flora. “It creates a kind of microclimate,” Russell says, “in that you've got shady parts, sun-baked parts, and plants can be trained on the walls themselves in a way that saves space.”
Speaking of Walled Gardens, we’ve pretty much all at least heard of the one down the road in Mells – a 15th century cottage garden within a ruined rectory (and which Russell says influenced the walled garden at 42 Acres). Originally interested in plants for their botanical and medicinal properties, The Walled Garden at Mells almost certainly came about for the same reason as most others of its ilk. That being a rudimentary form of pest control – what is, after all, better at keeping out mammals like rabbits and deer than a sometimes nine-foot-high brick wall?
Through the ages, walled gardens’ purpose fluctuated from a place of repose and contemplation under the Romans, to a place of fairly intense food production under the Victorians. These days, they come in either of those flavours, if not more, with peaceful pleasure gardens and veg and herb-producing workhorses on differnet ends of the same spectrum.
“As an ornamental gardener,” says Russell, "I'm more inclined to the romance of it.” Since the theme for this year’s Somerset Food Trail is ‘feasts and tastings’, indeed celebrating the charm and allure of local and nature-friendly produce, Russell and 42 may well end up putting on one of its outstanding events.
Find other Somerset Food Trail highlights local to Frome at:
Pomona Supper Club, 27, 28 & 29th July, 19:00
The setting for Pomona’s summer edition – the spring one The WFJ covered here – is on the banks of the River Frome, and includes a four-course set menu of things like barbequed beef rump cap with chimichurri, and cherry and pistachio pavlova.
Vallis Farm, 29th July, 15:00
A tour of the new farm at Vallis, followed by a feast celebrating produce from the market garden and Frome’s surrounds.
White Lake Cheese, multiple dates
Preceding an obligatory testing session, tour White Lake, near Shepton, to learn how they make some of the county’s best but often under-recognised cheeses.
Wraxall Vineyard, multiple dates
Wine tasting with one of the county’s oldest vineyards, paired with local cheese, charcuterie, and stunning views of the verdant Somerset Levels.
Many more events, 14th-30th July, at somersetfoodtrail.org