Botany Boy James Wong's tips on making your vegetables  richer nutrients

Fiann Ó Nualláin meets best-selling author James Wong ahead of his ‘Grow-for-flavour’ seminars in Carlow.

NEXT week, James Wong the author of the best-selling Grow Your Own Drugs, Grow For Flavour and Homegrown Revolution, rolls into the fabulous Carlow Garden Festival to give two informative and entertaining talks.  I caught up with him this week to discuss his impending visit.


So your talk at Kilgraney House and Herb Gardens is titled ‘Grow for flavour’ and I believe you are going to spill the secrets of how to boost the nutritional potential of the fruits and vegetables we commonly grow? This is right up the alley of readers of this column and as tickets are flying out the door, some will be disappointed to not get the chance to hear you speak. Just to give a little taste of the talk and share a morsel with those who won’t make it, could you share your secret on how to grow tomatoes with 50% more vitamin C.


There are actually a number of ways to spike the vitamin C content of tomatoes, but arguably the easiest is to spray them in a dilute solution of aspirin. No, really. Aspirin is a synthetic copy of a natural hormone found in plants that helps regulate their internal defence system, and research shows it functions in a very similar way. Popping half a soluble aspirin tablet in a litre of water and spraying this on your plants once a month through the summer tricks them into entering a heightened state of alertness to potential threats, becoming more resistant to cold, drought, certain pests and diseases. They even produce fruit that is higher in sugars and antioxidants, including vitamin C. It couldn’t be simpler.


Your second talk is at the Visual Centre of Contemporary Art on how to eat better. There are so many fad diets out there what is your approach to healthy eating?


As a scientist, I often get frustrated by fad diets. Not only because they are usually based on poor evidence, but increasingly because they seem to seek to undermine solid science and mislead the public.

I know diets can seem a trivial thing to get worked up about, but being misled about the basic facts about the food we eat, I believe, is a key contributing factor to the growing public mistrust of science — one of the biggest issues that faces society around the world today.

My approach to healthy eating is to look at the huge weight of top-quality evidence amassed by dietitians over the last few decades and follow their expert advice. The best bit is we all kind of know what this is: Eat lots of fruit, veg and wholegrains, and go easy on the fat and sugar.

Having said this, as a plant scientist there are a number of ways to make fruit and veg measurably richer in the vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients which dietitians advise are doing us good. My research is largely in uncovering the simple things we can do to make them even better.


 The original Irish calendar and the old ogham language were based on native trees and our national symbol is a shamrock — which long before we wore it, we had a spring tradition of eating it as a bitter tonic to detox all those winter fats. The modern world is superseding those plant-related traditions and our living ethnobotany is ebbing away. It’s not just here it’s a global problem and while Amazonian ethnobotany may be improving medicine many only encounter ‘botanicals’ that are populating shampoos and skin care. As an ethnobotanist yourself and a wide travelled one, how healthy is man’s current relationship with the natural world?


Wow. That’s a big question. Sadly, yes, our traditional ecological knowledge is being lost at an alarming rate. This is something I first came across when doing my masters research in the highlands of Ecuador in the early 2000s. Most of the medicinal plant gatherers I was studying were in their seventies and eighties, with very few younger people learning from them. I wonder how many of those people are still around? This is a real concern given the amount of conventional medicines that were first derived from natural sources. It’s sadly a complex, global problem with very few simple solutions.


What we do here in the Irish Examiner is not just articles about pruning roses or growing carrots, but actually every now and then really explore cultural and historic connections to plants and give recipes for their use as food, medicine and even cosmetics. A small way to keep the knowledge and skills alive, just as you do in your books, talks and TV work. Serious stuff aside — what first attracted you to take up horticulture as a passion or career?


I can’t ever remember not being completely and utterly fascinated by plants, so I am going to blame genetics. Some people, like my big brother, are born loving football, I was born loving plants.


That’s why with gardeners especially I always put passion before career. The final question. Possibly the hardest one; maybe the easiest one. Asking someone who gardens “what is your favourite plant” is like asking “what was your favourite breath today” but what plant you could not do without. For me its calendula officinalis, I love its joyous colour, I enjoy its edibility and I use it in my herbalism to treat many conditions. So is there a single plant that ticks many boxes for you?


At the moment my favourite is meadowsweet. It’s fluffy white flower plumes are beautiful, unusual and taste phenomenal in desserts. They are great for wildlife and even contain anti-inflammatory chemicals that can help relieve pain. What more could you ask for?


One of my own favourites and the original inspiration for aspirin — so a pot of meadowsweet tea can go half to your relieve your lumbago and half to getting those tomatoes to boost their vitamin C.

To catch James for yourself you have two options:

Kilgraney House and Herb Gardens, Borris Road, Kilgraney, Bagenalstown, Co Carlow Time: 2.30pm Adm: €20

Centre for Contemporary Art and the George Bernard Shaw Theatre, Old Dublin Road, Carlow. Time: 8pm Adm: €16

Garden Notes

The annual Friends of Marymount Open Garden summer fundraiser has been a great success for far, says fundraising co-ordinator, Geraldine Mackey. The initiative has raised a grand total of €28,000 to date. Go and help this great cause by visiting today’s Open Garden at the home of Elizabeth Law, Ash Cottage, Rossleague, Cobh, Co Cork from 2pm-6pm. Entrance is by donation.

Your help is needed too, for the All Ireland Online Ladybird Survey of 2017. The survey is an online research project funded by the Irish Research Council and Fota Wildlife Park and managed by Fota Wildlife Park and University College Cork on the status, threats, protection and conservation of ladybirds in Ireland. It is a citizen science project which means the public is needed to get involved and populate the survey between the months of April to October. “Records of ladybirds are low in Ireland and it is important that we put them on the map,” says Gill Weyman, research scholar. “They play such an important role in our environment — it’s important to understand where they are located and what they feed on. “The Harlequin, which originates in Asia, is a new ladybird species in Ireland which preys on the larvae of native ladybirds and competes with them for food. It is now established in Cork City, but we need to know from this survey how far across the country it has spread.” If you are in your garden, going for a walk or at work and you see a ladybird you can help by leaving it where you found it and then taking a photograph. Make a note of date, time and a brief description and finally, go to and record your sightings. Photographs are very important as they help to verify records, says Gill Weyman. If you are unsure about anything, help is at hand on where there are identification guides and further information on ladybirds. There will be free talks and practical information on the survey and the Harlequin ladybird, held throughout July in Co Cork with Gill Weyman: These include today at 11am in Midleton library and at 2pm in Fermoy library. For further information, please contact or 0894429013

The RHSI Sweetpea Show runs this weekend from 1.30pm today until 5.30 and from 10am to 5pm tommorrow at The Teak House, National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin.

Meanwhile, as already flagged on Peter’s page, the RHSI Russborough Garden Show starts on July 29 at 10am and is open until 5pm in the Russborough Estate, Blessington, Co Wicklow.

And in the world of gardening books, Shirley Lanigan’s new opus, Open Gardens of Ireland, was recently launched in Dublin by Gerry Daly. The result of visits to 427 gardens over the island of Ireland, the 400-page book is about her experiences of criss-crossing the island, visiting every garden she could find that opens its doors to the public. These included postage stamp town gardens and huge historic demesnes, roof gardens and island gardens. Shirley’s book is published by Butter Slip Press. Price is €22.50.

Ealaín — a celebration of Irish Art and Culture will be held tomorrow in the National Gallery Ireland with special guests, Lisa Lambe, and Hothouse Flowers members, Liam Ó Maonlaí and Peter O’Toole and admission is free. #Ealain2017

Fiann’s tips

* Soaking some willow twigs or meadowsweet in a jam jar of water for a week will yield that tomato booster.

* It’s a hard one, but the recommended practice is to remove all fruitlets from apple pear and plum trees that were planted in the last year — the aim is to allow them develop both roots and a good branch structure.

* With apples and plum trees more that two years planted, the consensus is to thin back fruits to three or four per cluster.

The aim is to have bigger fruit. The June drop may have done it for you. Small things are just as succulent, so it’s really down to how you want to play it.

* While bush tomatoes can pretty much be left to their own devices, in order to ripen all the fruits of cordon tomatoes, you will need to stop them; this is simply a haircut above the fourth truss (fruit set).

* Beans and peas can be stopped too. Pinching out the tops of broad beans will help to decrease blackfly as well as letting lower pods set.


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