Amber Rose spent her childhood in the garden of her mother Kay Baxter, the co-founder of Koanga Institute who has spent decades working to save our heritage food plants. And her mum, Amber says, helped shape her, as both a cook and a gardener.
Amber Rose on how her mum, Koanga Institute co-founder Kay Baxter, shaped her as a gardener and cook.
My mother grew vegetables all year round. As children, we would help her and learn as we went… sometimes it felt like hard work, but mostly it was fun.
my mother’s garden is the beginning of everything for me. She had a vision and a dream – 40 years ahead of her time – to collect and save heritage seeds. It started as a small idea, then snowballed into a massive lifetime commitment. She now has the largest organic heritage seed collection in the Southern Hemisphere, with over 800 varieties, and in 2017 was awarded a New Year Honour by the Queen, for her services to conservation and sustainable food production.
My siblings and I grew up immersed in this dream. I remember skipping from the house to the garden with a basket on my hip to gather ingredients for the family supper. I loved to peruse the vegetable beds for afternoon snacks, especially in the summer time when the sweet, juicy tomatoes were in season. I would pick one of my favourite little yellow cherry tomatoes, wrap it in a basil leaf plucked from a nearby plant and pop it into my mouth. That experience will never leave me – warm, sun-ripened, so incredibly fragrant, verdant and bursting with life – the juice, the scent, the deliciousness.
My mother grew about 15 different types of tomato, saving the seed from all. There were those yellow cherry tomatoes, red cherry tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes almost big enough to cover a dinner plate, green stripy tomatoes for stuffing, black tomatoes, orange tomatoes, tomatoes for making sauce, tomatoes for sun-drying and tomatoes for salads. To stop different types of seeds cross-pollinating, Mum would throw giant nets over each variety just as it was flowering, to stop any insects getting in. We then had to go in with little delicate paintbrushes to do the job of the bees, very carefully brushing pollen onto the stamens. I loved that job; it was such a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
I also loved the abundance of courgettes in the summer time – courgettes are the vegetable equivalent of rapidly reproducing bunnies. You pick them one day, then wake the next morning to find a whole new army of little green batons. It seemed like magic the way they grew so quickly.
As the summer drew to an end, I began to look forward to the pumpkins. My favourite was the green chestnut, with its soft green skin and beautiful orange flesh that was nutty and dry, making it the perfect vehicle for ridiculous amounts of butter. ‘Delicata’ squash was another of my favourites; I loved them halved lengthways, scattered with fresh herbs and a little butter, salt and pepper, and roasted in the oven for half an hour. Heaven.
My mother’s greens and herbs were also amazing. I loved everything, from the lemony sorrel, to the sweet
Courgettes are the vege equivalent of rapidly reproducing bunnies. You pick them one day, then wake the next to a whole army of little green batons.
little crunchy gem lettuces, the zesty rocket, the frilly purple open lettuces, the dark green kale and curly kale and the tree lettuces.
Mum made simple but beautiful salads straight from the garden, with a base of her homegrown greens, finely sliced red onion, handfuls of freshly chopped herbs, a scattering of homemade soft cheese, chunks of sun-ripened tomato and crispy slices of apple cucumber, with a delicate French dressing. So simple, but so amazingly good. I loved the way Mum grew flowers among the vegetables to deter pests: beautiful cosmos, chamomile, zinnias and violas. Adding flowers to my salads is something I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember.
My mother grew vegetables all year round. As children we would help her and learn as we went – how to pile a compost heap, how to weed a bed, how to pick vegetables without hurting or damaging the plant, how to save seeds, how to bottle, pickle, ferment and preserve. Sometimes it felt like hard work, but most of the time it was fun – magical even, like getting lost in the jungle of nasturtiums after rain when the surface of the nasturtium leaves would make the raindrops look all silvery.
When I started writing my book Wild Delicious I had just moved home after living in the UK for 12 years, and had the space to start my own vegetable garden.
I double-dug the beds with my three-month-old baby asleep on my back, planned things out and planted seeds. For the whole of this year, I have barely had to buy a vegetable. It’s been one of the most amazing experiences – putting into practice all the things I learnt as a child, and being able to pick all the vegetables, herbs and flowers from my own garden.
My little girl, Frankie, has been with me every step of the way, learning to take her first steps over the carrot beds and pop tomatoes into her mouth just as I did when I was little. Although she is barely one year old now, she already knows which tomatoes she likes best!
In this day and age where food can be so incredibly costly (both in money terms and for the environment), growing vegetables has almost become a political act – one of independence, empowerment, beauty, satisfaction and growth. It is a commitment that is so worth the effort. Nourishing yourself and your tribe with the food you grow, and nourishing the earth at the same time, is incredibly rewarding. Start small, embrace the learning curve, and see where it takes you.
Farmers’ markets are also a wonderful place to source organic, local, seasonal produce. Embrace them, support them and get to know the stall-holders – they will love you for it and so will the local economy. Eat with the seasons as much as you can, as the fruits and vegetables will be cheaper and will taste better.
Whichever way you find your vegetables for your daily cooking, take time and delight in choosing the best apple in the basket or on the tree, the tastiestlooking broccoli, the most delicious-looking cucumber and the most handsome celeriac.
Enjoying all the different processes brings added layers of joy to your daily routines. I hope that you find inspiration… as I did growing up in my mother’s garden.
Mum’s garden beds at the end of summer when lots of veges have been pulled and new seedlings have just gone in, though the ends often have permanent space for herbs.
Dahlias and heritage apples.
Frankie and I had a picnic under the shade of the poplar trees. Packing picnics and heading out into the wild with her is one of my favourite things to do.