I’ve broken my New Year resolution already.
I promised I’d find 15 minutes every day to sort out the garden for this year’s growing. But real life intervenes and by the time I’ve done all the other things I need to do, it’s pitch black outside or bucketing down.
Knowing I’m the sort of person who always commits to do more than a 24-hour day allows defines the way I grow: lots of permanent planting (trees, shrubs and hardy perennials); training myself to see weeds as ‘soil conditioners’ (they are – really – I’ll tell you more another time); and a strong desire to add a machete to my list of essential gardening tools.
Knowing what sort of a person you are can really help you to grow well and productively. What sort of a grow-your-owner do you think you are?
If you’re growing your own to save money, especially if you haven’t got much space, it pays to grow the more expensive crops. Yes, you can go ‘staple’, buy special potato barrels and fill them with bought-in compost and harvest a crop that (I promise you) won’t be anything as generous as the one in the pictures. But if you work out the cost of your harvest, once you’ve accounted for all the grow-your-own bling, you’d probably find it would have been cheaper to fly in a private jet-load of spuds from Egypt. So growing those delicacies that you can’t afford to buy at the greengrocers adds variety and vitamins to your diet and is a great way of improving your diet without bottoming out your credit card.
If you’ve had allotment envy for years and are getting one for the first time this year, you’ll probably want to (a) get a good harvest and (b) make a good impression on the neighbours. The key here is to ask other allotment holders what grows well – they may even be able to give you some seeds to start you off.
It pays to concentrate on a handful of crops, really get to know how to grow them well and then move on to a wider variety once you’re more expert.
If you’re lucky enough to have a full plot, don’t feel you have to plant the full space all at once – if it’s more than you can handle, cover the unused area with a thick layer of cardboard and masses of organic mulch (woodchips, old spoiled straw) and underneath that neat cover, you’ll be building yourself a mighty fine soil. It’s a great way of clearing weeds. Or grow potatoes – they’re known as a clearing crop because in the process of ‘earthing’ them up, you’re weeding too.
If you love your beautiful herbaceous borders and are concerned that serried rows of onions and kale will spoil the look and feel of your garden, don’t worry! Many flowering and decorative plants can be edible too – I grow masses of nasturtiums every year – their leaves and flowers add an exotic colour and peppery punch to wildcrafted salads. Hardy perennial herbs can bring fragrance and utilitarian beauty dotted in and amongst your hebes, as well as attracting beneficial insects. Rose petals (minus the bitter white bit at the bottom) are edible too and often stray into our amazing herby salad bags. Strawberries – especially alpine strawberries – provide great ground cover and a tasty nibble that our children love to forage. Try them at the front of your borders.
If you’d prefer to slightly adapt what you have rather than dig up your lawn (though I may try and persuade you to do this another time) start by carefully checking out what you have already that’s edible or useful in some way, and then dotting extras – herbs and edible flowers or decorative veggies – into your borders. You may not fill the freezer to bursting, but you’ll still have a garden you love.
One word of warning when it comes to edible flowers – check very carefully (from a book or an expert forager) that the specific plant you are about to taste is edible – use its latin name, not its common name – and if in even the slightest doubt, don’t eat it! Some edible plants have pretty dangerous relatives.
If you really want to grow your own but don’t even have a patio to your name, start looking at your house plants – it’s a great way to reduce your food miles to food inches.
It’s easy to grow many a good crop in place of your Ficus benjaminas or spider plants, just track down your sunniest windowsills, keep the windows spotlessly clean and turn the plant around often so it all gets a bit of sunshine. If it’s a fruiting plant though, be prepared to have to attack it with a paintbrush later in the season to fertilise the flowers!
So, before you rush out to the supermarket or garden centre and blow a week’s food budget on seeds and plants, take time to have a think about what you want to grow and why. It will make the whole experience of being part of the Grow Your Own movement a lot more satisfying (and a whole lot cheaper) – I promise.
If you rush out and get anything this week, get a seed catalogue – and spend the rest of the week thinking about what you love to eat. Next week, we’ll be looking at the whole seed thing – a story with enough politics and intrigue, love and disappointment to rival an Eastenders’ plotline.