How to Grow your Own Food
First published February 2021
Whether you’re an avocado adoring gastro-type or an ‘eat to live’ person, there is no denying that we all need food. Indeed, I don’t know about you, but food (along with crime novels and music) has been my primary source of enjoyment over the past 12 unusual months.
However, our eating habits here in the West can be damaging for the planet. Many supermarkets package food in plastic or other materials that are damaging to the environment, while foods are often flown around the world to get to your plate. Did you know that, in a typical British household, food accounts one third of your total environmental impact? Or that, here in the UK, we import 89% of our fruit? You can calculate the miles that your food has travelled here.
There are several ways you can reduce your food-related carbon footprint. One is to try to buy local as much as possible, perhaps at a greengrocer's rather than the supermarket. Another is to order a weekly veg box from a local farm. There are plenty of choices out there for doing that these days.
A third way is to have a go at growing your own food. If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, could you put it to work and grow some grub which will go straight to your plate?
Photo by Avinash Kumar on Unsplash
Four of our committee members here at the WBCA are keen garden growers. I asked them some questions about the best ways to get started and their experiences.
Sarah Watson said, “I’ve always tried to grow food because it tastes so good and there’s something wonderful about cropping the plants you’ve grown.” Tim Mason made the point that if you don’t have any garden space of your own, you might want to look for an allotment – finding one near your house is a good idea if you can. You can read more about how to find an allotment in Bristol here.
I asked this green fingered bunch what they had had most luck growing, and the answers were mixed. While some had success with potatoes, others found them more challenging. Sarah W reported that climbing beans and tomatoes are easy if you have limited space - and while my partner and I have had varied results with growing food, I can confirm that our beans climbed way higher than we thought they might. We still have bags of them in the freezer now, many months later.
Tim recommended hard and soft fruit as well as broad beans, while Sarah H suggested onions, spinach, chard, kale and land cress. Some found peas grew easily, while others found them harder to grow.
All the gang agreed that slugs and snails are one of the biggest challenges facing gardening growers. As Pippa Vine said, “Planting your own seedlings or bought plants and watching them disappear before your eyes can be very disheartening.”
Photo by Neha Deshmukh on Unsplash
Slug pellets are a no no as they are harmful to birds and hedgehogs. There was a common agreement that heading out at dusk with a head torch, picking slugs up and moving them away from your precious produce was a good idea. Pippa also recommended slug nematodes, which are microscopic, transparent worms, which feed and multiply inside the slug, killing them off in a way that’s kinder to the planet than pellets.
Sarah H suggested ignoring recommendations about spacing your seeds out when planting. “Most will be eaten by the little blighters so I sow very thickly and then, once the seedlings are past the vulnerable stage, they can be thinned out,” she said.
Top tips for first time gardeners from our gang were varied.
Photo by Ny Menghor on Unsplash
Pippa said, “After setting up lots of growing plots over the decades, then getting into permaculture in the last 10 years, I’ve learnt to have a good look at a potential growing space and ask:
• Where is the arc of the sun? Will your plants will get plenty of sunshine or do you need to think about what will grow in partial shade?
• What is the prevailing wind direction? You might need to provide some shelter.
• Is there a frost pocket where delicate plants could succumb to harsh winter temperatures?
• Can you collect rainwater from nearby roofs (including shed/lean-to/greenhouse) in water butts to water your veg?
• What kind of soil are you working with? Get down and dirty to find out. Is it heavy clay, sandy and free-draining, or a workable loam? Most soils will benefit from lots of organic matter like well-rotted manure, home-made compost or a seaweed fertiliser.”
Sarah W’s sensible advice was to, “Grow something you love eating – peas, beans, little tomatoes. The growing season takes longer than you think, so make sure you are around when your crop is cropping….”
Tim said, “Take it steady - grow three or four things in your first year but try different varieties of what you like such as the humble and easy to
grow potato, it adds interest to your growing and your menu.”
I think this is great advice - my partner and I went a bit mad planting everything we could get our hands on during lockdown 1.0, and it soon became overwhelming. Slow and steady wins the race!
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash
Sarah H says, “Just have a go and don’t give up if things don’t work first time. Some things I’ve grown have lasted through the winter and produced the following year – things like kale, cabbage, broccoli and spring onions which didn’t do very well the first year seemed better the next year. So if the plants are looking healthy the next spring then leave them if you have room and see what happens.”
Finally, Pippa suggested joining the Avon Organic Group and buying Good Earth Gardening and Fruit for Life, two friendly, accessible and amusing guides to growing veg and fruit organically by brilliant Bristol gardener and teacher Tim Foster: firstname.lastname@example.org
Perhaps unsurprisingly, our gardeners agreed that it’s not possible to grow enough in your garden to feed yourself the whole year round. However, every little helps, and if you supplement your home grown food with trips to the local greengrocer or zero waste shop, your carbon food-print (OK, I made that term up) should reduce significantly.
Do you have any top tips for growing food in your garden? If so, post them in the comments box below.
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