If you had to say what was the biggest trend over the last 10 years I think most people would agree it has been the incredible growth in the popularity of growing your own. Sales of vegetable seeds now outnumber those of flower seeds and the last 2 years or so has seen an increasing interest in growing fruit. Waiting lists for allotments are up to 30 years in parts of London and the demand for land to grow produce has inspired many an ingenious project such as Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall’s Landshare, which puts people with land in touch with those who want some and the Incredible Edible project in Todmorden, Lancashire.
Much of this has been attributed to a desire to know where our food has come from. Interestingly however, a survey commissioned by Which Magazine last year showed that the top reason for growing your own was not because of the health benefits but because of the increase in food prices people thought growing their own would save them money.
I say this is interesting because it has always been of some debate in the Welly household whether you do actually save money growing your own. This has come to the fore again as I contemplate growing carrots for the coming season. Simple you might think, seed aren’t that expensive, just buy some, sow them and then several months later you’ll have carrots. But as all you fellow carrot growers will know it’s not quite that simple. I tried some last year at the allotment and they were decimated by carrot fly.
Fellow plot holders went to extreme lengths to keep the flies out with wooden contraptions constructed and covered in fine mesh but they admitted it would have been much cheaper just to buy them from the supermarket. The other problem is the soil isn’t fine enough for carrots with a high proportion of clay in the soil on my plot. So that was that, at the end of last season I had decided not to bother with them. But the addiction to grow things won’t go away. So I’ve now decided to grow them in pots at home, away from the allotment carrot flies and in compost mixed with some sand to give them the right conditions. I have suitable pots but there is the purchase of compost, which isn’t cheap and some sand. So is it really worth it?
We don’t weigh our produce so it is difficult to know how much, if anything we actually save. You need to factor in your allotment rent and any expenditure, for instance any fertilisers, equipment and compost. Even if you can produce enough compost for your plot you still need to buy it to sow the seeds. There are some plants that are better to grow if saving money is a key, what I call high end produce. Soft fruit is one of the worst offenders for chemical residues and buying organic is expensive but even after purchasing raspberry canes last spring and not expecting much of a crop in the first year we were certainly up by the end of the autumn. This was partly due to discovering the variety ‘Polka’ which was especially high yielding even in it’s first year.
Anything that crops over a long period and that keeps producing are a cost effective use of space. Courgettes, for example will happily overwhelm you over a good 2 – 3 months. This year I’m growing broad beans based on it being difficult to get organically produced ones and that they were expensive last year. I plan to weigh this crop, although I’ll probably forget, to see how we do on cost.
One crop we’re definitely not growing is sweetcorn. We’ve tried it twice and it has succumbed to our cool, dull summers. I know it’s meant to taste sublime when picked and cooked immediately but weather is the one element I can’t do anything about.
So here are my tips for getting the most from your plot:
- If your plot is small don’t grow crops, such as onions or maincrop potatoes, that take up a lot of space and can be bought relatively cheaply.
- Do grow soft fruit. It’s expensive to buy organically and is always sweeter when picked ripe from the bush. There is the initial cost of the plants but they will soon pay you back. Any surplus can be frozen or made into jams.
- Do grow your own salad leaves. Salad bags are expensive and have been washed in all sorts of chemicals. Franchi seeds in particular are great value for money. One packet of their salad leaves will keep you going all summer.
- Do grow Cavolo nero, a type of kale. From a midsummer sowing you will have baby leaves for pastas and omlettes, bigger leaves in autumn and winter for steaming and you can eat the flower heads in early spring like purple sprouting broccoli.
- Do grow french beans, which are expensive to buy in the supermarket, and give you good quantities. They lose their freshness quite quickly as well and are always bendy when bought but there’s none of that from your own supply.
- And finally, remember you can’t put a price on flavour, freshness and ultimately the enjoyment and satisfaction that comes with growing your own. So don’t get too hung up on whether growing your own will save you money, it’s meant to be fun too. That’s why when I was up at the plot this morning, Brian was sowing his carrots in his specially built raised beds and putting in place their wooden and enviromesh covers. And that’s why I’ve just ordered some carrot seed. It might not be cost effective or easy but it is worth it.