Wednesday, 19 August 2009

An interview with Emma Cooper. Author of 'The Alternative Kitchen Garden an A-Z'

Emma Cooper's new book arrived on my door step a few weeks ago with a beautiful and profound message on the inside cover:

'To Ryan, Read it and reap! Emma x'

To be honest that was enough of a sign for me that this was quality stuff, but after a good read I soon realised it was an extremely good book.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Emma a few questions about her book and other ventures. All of which I've added below.

For those who have not read the book how would you describe it and what three words would you use to sum it?
'The Alternative Kitchen Garden: An A-Z' isn't a gardening manual. It's more like a conversation, following what I've learned about kitchen gardening over the last few years. A lot of gardening books are quite prescriptive, and give people the idea that if they don't follow the instructions nothing will grow – I have a much more experimental approach that encourages people just to try and see what happens. That's part of where the 'alternative' comes from; I also grow some unusual things, and try to garden in an environmentally friendly way.
Three words I would use to sum it up would be: friendly, inspiring, and fun.

What was your main motivation for writing the book?
I have been blogging about my garden for years now, and became a professional writer in 2007 – concentrating on kitchen gardening and environmental issues. A book seemed the next logical step in getting the message out that you can have fun in the garden and help the planet at the same time.

Mark Diacono wrote the foreword for your book. How did this partnership form?
In the book I mention how important the online gardening community has been to me. I have my blog, and my podcast, to communicate with other gardeners, but I also read lots of gardening blogs and find inspiration in them. Being part of the community brings me into contact with some fabulous people, and Mark is one of them. We have a shared interest in unusual crops (check out his Otter Farm blog) and the effect that Climate Change will have on gardens and food production, and that brought us together. He was so kind to agree to write the foreword, I am eternally grateful.

How long did it take to write the book? Has this been an idea of yours for a long time?
Writing the manuscript took me six months. The process of turning it into a book (editing, choosing the photos, layout, etc) took around another six months. Once I became a writer the thought of writing a book was always present, but it's very intimidating starting a project that involves so much work and time.

You chose to take an “A-Z” approach to the kitchen garden. How did you come up with this idea?
It actually just came to me. I wasn't really thinking of writing a book, but then I had the idea and the rest followed on from there. I wanted to do something different to the usual gardening book structure of following the seasons or grouping the various vegetable families together.

Out of all the A-Z sections which was the most difficult to write?
Q. There are so few gardening topics that begin with Q. I looked through all my gardening books (and I have a lot!) and mostly they just missed Q out completely, which was a luxury I didn't feel I had with an A-Z.

You obviously love the kitchen garden but which crop is your favourite and why?
Every plant has its merits (although for some you have to look hard to find them!) but I have a real soft spot for sweet peppers. They are very beautiful, with glossy green leaves and pretty white flowers, and watching the fruits grow and change colour is endlessly entertaining. You get to eat them at the end, which is a huge bonus, and they can live indoors on a sunny windowsill, so you don't even need a garden.

Are you currently growing any new, weird or wonderful crops?
Of course! This year I am growing quinoa (a grain crop) as part of a Garden Organic experiment, as well as oca, yacon and ulluco – all of those originate in South America. There's also Japanese wineberries and wonderberries, and samphire – which has to be watered with salt water. In the Grow Dome I have sweet potatoes and tomatillos.

On the subject of new crops, how are your Goji berries this year? Do you have any tips for growing this “super-food”?
My goji bushes have been a bit rampant this year, but so far they're not fruiting. I have been doing some research and I can prune them back hard before next season, which will encourage them to stay under control, but beyond that I have to consider them an ongoing experiment.

In the book you discuss that you caught the gardening bug when you started growing herbs. Which herbs would you recommend a beginner gardener start with?
Whichever ones you like to cook with. Most of the culinary herbs are very easy to grow. For perennials like rosemary, thyme, mint and oregano I would buy a small plant at the garden centre. Parsley, basil and coriander are easy to grow from seed, and if you use a lot then you can have as many plants as you need and save a fortune.

How much of an impact has the Grow Dome made on your garden? Is it practical? And how easy was the construction?
The Grow Dome makes it possible to grow plants that are – at best – marginal in our climate. Tomatoes love it, and this year's sweet potatoes look like they're doing well too. And it gives me somewhere to garden when the weather is nasty. But it's not a panacea – I'm lousy at remembering to water, so the Grow Dome can become a desert if I'm not careful.

You are an avid blogger. Do you find that this helped you to write the book? And did reading other blogs inspire you at all?
Absolutely. I would say there's no better training for a writer than keeping a blog. The discipline of updating it regularly is a real motivator and small chunks of writing are so much less intimidating than a big, blank sheet of paper. There are lots of blogs I find inspiring, and I mention some of them in the book, but the online world can be very volatile – blogs and bloggers come and go.

I noticed a sneaky Alstroemeria on the front cover of your book. Do you grow many ornamentals?
The Alstroemerias (well spotted, by the way!) actually came free when I ordered something edible. I considered giving them away, but then decided I would plant them, and they are beautiful. I have no issue with ornamental plants, I just think that there are plenty of plants that are useful and ornamental and I prefer to grow those.

What does the future hold for Emma Cooper?
Now that the book is finished and published, people keep asking me if I'm going to write another – but it is a huge commitment and not one I have made yet. I don't know what the future holds for me, but there are over 7000 plants listed in the PFAF (Plants for a Future) database of edible, medicinal and useful plants so there's plenty to keep me busy!

'An Alternative Kitchen Garden: an A to Z' is published by Permanent Publications and they also publish Permaculture Magazine, which Emma also writes for and which is full of great stuff if you're working towards a more sustainable lifestyle.
You can order the book directly from the Green Shopping Catalogue, or from your favourite bookseller. There's more information on the book, including links to reviews, on Emma's website.


  1. What a beautifully written, in-depth interview! I normally don't read these types of garden books, but will definitely read this one. Especially since I'm dying to know what else, besides Quinoa, is in the 'Q' chapter!!! Thanks Ryan!

  2. Thanks for the new Book idea! I hope I can I find it at the book store tomorrow. Great interview. I love the cover of her book. I look forward to reading it. Thanks for introducing the book and her to those of us who read your Stellar blog :)

  3. I very much enjoyed reading this blog. Being a first-time gardener of culinary herbs, rosemary, thyme, basil and oregano, knowing I made a good first-timer choice is a good feeling. I am also excited as I am watching my very first anaheim green chili fruit; I have three growing quickly so far, and several beautiful white blooms on the top of the plant. I am absolutely going to order this book! How interesting! Thanks for this, Ryan! And my compliments to Emma Cooper!

  4. Thank you for asking the weird and wonderful question. That is just what I wanted to know! This is a lovely post, with Goji berries, and Grow Domes, and Japanese wonderberries....oh my.

  5. Sold! Off to Amazon to find me a copy!

  6. Thanks for being such a wonderful interviewer, Ryan!

  7. Well done Ryan... and Emma's book sounds good; might not be able to afford a growdome just yet, but maybe the book!

  8. I enjoyed the interview, and the book sounds very interesting.

  9. Ryan: I really enjoyed this interview! Do hope we'll see more of this type of entry on your blog - it's fantastic reading!


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