Floral designer and keen gardener Fionna Hill is spreading the word on the goodness of microgreens.
Often, as children, we have no idea what role we will perform in later life - the world of work seems a mystery to us, our choice of occupation elusive. But usually, as adults, we can look back and spot the signs. We realise the silent calling to a passion that was there from the very start. So it was with Fionna Hill, floral designer, author, freelance writer and keen gardener.
Brought up in Timaru, Hill took for granted her parents' quarter-acre section. While her father grew vegetables and her mother tenderly crafted a distinctive green floral garden of hellebores, ixia and euphorbia, Hill hung out in the sun on the back step. "I distinctly recall not helping," she smiles. "My brother, sister and I didn't bother to offer."
Her childhood memories centre more on the huge crates her dad would bring home from his bicycle shop and set on the lawn as play huts. "We'd cut holes in them for windows and doors, then wallpaper the inside and put carpet on the floor," she says.
Later, though, she joined her mum entering flower show competitions. "I didn't want to grow flowers but I was happy to pick and arrange them." A newspaper clipping from the time reveals how successful the young Hill (not yet a teenager) was. "I was impressed by Fionna's novelty container of flowers," said one judge. "A combination of grasses and lilies in green and autumn tones, the entry was combined in a small vegetable marrow."
"When I read that now," says Hill, "it doesn't surprise me that I became a florist - and I still like to include fruit and vegetables in my designs."
After school, while on her OE in London, Hill took her first official steps along the petalled path. She had a humdrum job checking invoices but each morning walked past the understated plaque of the Constance Spry Flower School. "Mum had talked about Constance Spry. In those days, her establishment was elite - it had a fabulous reputation."
So Hill used most of the money she'd saved for travelling to enrol in the one-year course. "I passed with really high marks and they offered me a job in their Chelsea store."
Working in this desirable Royal Borough was an eye-opener for the girl from Timaru. Her classes may have taught her the technical aspects of floristry but designing for society folk was another thing altogether. "We went on location to do the flowers. It was just fabulous - even though many clients treated us like tradespeople."
Catering to a discerning clientele stood her in good stead when, several years later (having abandoned floristry when she became disheartened by the conservatism of the industry in the 80s), she got the chance to move to Auckland and start her own business. At first she toiled away with foliage and form in a workshop behind a leather factory. Then, when an Australian-based publisher asked her to contribute the floral design for an heirloom Christmas book, she was truly in her element.
To coincide with the launch of her second solo book, Country Flowers, she opened her own eponymous shop in Parnell, determined to push the boundaries beyond the bouquet.
Here she fulfilled her penchant for fashioning floral vignettes augmented by antique French homewares she'd sourced from Paris. "Looking back, I used to do the very same thing when entering flower shows with Mum. I'd drape a bit of fabric on the wall, set a table in front of it and put my floral display on that."
This love of creating corners of interest is today translated in Hill's petite Grey Lynn apartment. "I live in a cupboard," she laughs.
The main living room and kitchen may be anchored in suburban Auckland, but the world comes alive in this haven. Zulu hats, animal skins, ostrich eggs and carved Kenyan masks bring a flavour of Africa. Framed fragments of futon covers and kimonos speak of Japan and the Parisian influence is evident in a long-loved side table and a lamp base made from the factory template of a wallpaper roll. "I live in clutter and I love it," says Hill, a master of mix-and-match pattern and texture. On the floor, layers of Oriental rugs bring comfort, books (mainly cookery and gardening themed) are piled high and every space is home to her keepsakes. "I have an obsession with birds' eggs and botanical engravings."
Obstinately, because her small flat with its two balconies pretty much precluded her from having a proper garden, she determined to exercise her green fingers. That's why Hill joined the crew of the Grey Lynn Community Gardens where she was, after many enthusiastic weeks of digging, hoeing and planting for the common good, given a little square of soil to call her own. It's perhaps also the reason why she's developed a love of microgreens. "Although I wouldn't want people to think they are only for those who live in apartments," she argues.
Hill first came across these nutrition-packed little lovelies when she was visiting her sister, Shirley, in Blenheim. "We bought a bag of microgreens at the farmer's market," she explains. Fascinated, she decided to do some research. She discovered that the Kings Seeds catalogue had a whole section devoted to microgreens.
Now, both balconies that lead out alternately from the kitchen and living room are graced with an eye-catching exhibit of these greens. Hill has them artfully arranged in textural stone and terracotta pots.
She's built platforms so some are at ground level, while others climb ladder-like into eye-level view when seen from the sofa. They are like a living alfresco sculpture.
So enamoured is Hill with these tiny-but-tasty plants, she's written a book - How to Grow Microgreens ($29.99, David Bateman). She says many people are confused what exactly microgreens are. "They're quite different to sprouts that don't use a growing medium and just thrive in a jar where you refresh the water regularly," she explains.
Basically, they are normal-sized vegetables planted in soil from seeds that are not thinned out. They grow very tightly packed together and are picked and eaten once they produce their first two true leaves (the cotyledons) before they have a chance to get bigger.
But why not just let them grow? "Nutritionally, they are magic," says Hill. "Microgreens contain higher levels of concentrated active compounds than found in mature plants."
We are all familiar with the health benefits of wheatgrass shots, but Hill also uses her microgreens to add crunch, texture, intense flavour and health-giving phyto-chemicals to all sorts of recipes.
She plants her crop in seed-raising mix and says the easiest types to grow are mustard, fenugreek and the gorgeous deep-red sango radish.
"Kids love them because they offer almost instant gratification. For kids, I like to grow them in eggshells, cocktail glasses or teacups just to amuse them."
Make sure you water frequently Hill advises as, due to the huge volume in one pot, they drink a lot. "Within a couple of weeks you'll be able to eat them."
Try them freshly picked, tossed over salads, in stuffed mushrooms, fritters or frittata for an extra kick of flavour. "They also look beautiful," she says, gesturing to her line-up of perky greens on the balcony.
A true convert, Hill says it's about time these minuscule morsels moved away from use solely as a high-end restaurant garnish to a proper place at the everyday table.