On growing food

When I was a kid, my Dad grew some food in our garden. The only trouble was he didn’t grow things I wanted to eat. That said, I’m sure there were potatoes and I would happily have eaten them. Perhaps I also ate onions he grew, which would have gone into home made stews. We also had a large mint patch, from which my Mum harvested leaves to make mint sauce if we were having lamb for Sunday dinner. Shop bought mint sauce never tastes quite right to me even now.

So, I’ll start again. My Dad grew a lot of things I wasn’t keen on. Like large, earthy spinach leaves, marrows, runner beans and radishes. I had a hand in growing the latter because each of us were allotted a plot in the garden and the radishes grew on mine. I can’t recall having much of a hand in growing them but my dear Dad would pretend that I had grown them just for him – because he was the only one who liked them. The fact that he grew food at all is probably down to him having grown up during the Second World War, when the country was encouraged to Dig for Victory and grow as much food as we could. Many of you reading this will likely know exactly what I’m talking about, but for younger readers I will clarify. Food imports were disrupted (to put it mildly) by the war. Shortages were so bad that food was rationed. That rationing continued into the next decade after the war.

In the present, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has already caused shortages of sunflower oil and quasi-rationing of other oils. Grain shortages are also forecast. Food prices were already on the rise because of the pandemic. There is definitely a storm on the horizon. In short, it’s a good time to start growing your own food.

One of the problems with growing your own food is space to do so, but even in a flat you can probably grow baby spinach or kale on a sunny window ledge. Even this can provide a useful nutritional boost which is good for your health. If you have a garden though, forget any of that fashionable inside out/outdoor living garden rug nonsense and start planning where to put your vegetable bed. Or, get yourself on the waiting list for an allotment.

If you are thinking, “I can’t grow my own food, I wouldn’t even know where to start,” take heart in knowing I was the same – even having grown up with a Dad who grew food. I still felt like it when I met the man who is now my husband and he had an allotment. But over the years as I’ve watched him manage his plot the penny has started to drop. With his encouragement I now have my own plot – and even a polytunnel!

I really was a food growing resister at one point, but last year I grew all my own leeks, some strawberries (inherited from the previous plot holder, but I had to look after them) and decent, albeit small, crops of sweetcorn and butternut squash. My husband grew potatoes, various types of greens and more. Some of our crops failed, tomatoes for example because of an outbreak of blight, but I’ve hardly bought any veg bar mushrooms and peppers for months.

I am not saying it is ‘free food’ by the way, because you pay for it in time and the cost of seeds – and in my case allotment rent. But it is actually quite easy if you’re prepared to put the effort in. One of the things I most love about growing food is my childlike joy at how seeds sprout and grow and then how tiny, little plants grow into something big enough to form a substantial part of my dinner. When leeks start growing for example, they look like nothing more than a bit of grass a couple of millimetres wide. But in a few months they grow into this tall, chunky vegetable a couple of which make one of my ‘five a day’!

My teeny lettuces in early April

Earlier this year I sowed some lettuce. They came up and looked like nothing more than cress. They don’t look much more promising when the leaves are a couple of inches long, but then you stick them in the ground. The sun, via my polytunnel, did the hard work but I’ve already eaten about half a dozen lettuces, which grew into full sized beauties and made lovely salads. Also, pretty much everything I grow tastes better than veg from the shop.

It’s true that not everything grows so easily and quickly. Also there is weeding, watering and sometimes feeding of plants, which must be done. But with some effort and patience, you could even grow all the veg to have with your Christmas dinner. (You’ll likely need to buy plants for some of it though, rather than growing from seed, as timing is also a factor in growing food.)

Inside my polytunnel, see how the lettuce has grown by the end of April!

The other key to success with growing food is being willing to learn, including from other people who are already doing it. That is how I learned. So if I can go from being someone who barely grew a radish and relied on a veg box delivery, to someone who has an allotment plot and a polytunnel, there’s hope for even the most reluctant food grower. Don’t wait, start now.

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