Charlotte Willis gets her hands dirty and roots around for growing success stories, exploring the best ways to grow your own food at home…
All of my friends and I seem to have developed a craving for, what can only be described as, an American Dream vision of self-sufficiency in our futures. Waking up in the morning, glancing through the cottage windows at picturesque views of lush green patchwork in our back yards. Birds chirping, rabbits hopping, butterflies fluttering – the ultimate idyllic self-sustainable future. I can’t help but notice an increasing number of my generation are craving this level of self- productivity. A simpler life, connecting ourselves back to what is important, a la Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or perhaps more Jamie Oliver (definitely more Jamie). Off-grid. Off the beaten track. Off ‘the fat of the land’.
Back in the days before automatic tractors and anatomical harvesting procedures, small-scale farming was how generations before us got their five-a-day. Imported fruit and veg were a luxury for the very rich, and if you had a poor growing season, I’m afraid to inform you that you may well have starved. Lucky then, that we have now acquired modern-day, intensively grown and mass-produced fresh fruit and vegetables available at our very convenience, right?
Well, perhaps not. There’s no doubt that advances in agriculture over the past century have provided us with every variety of fruit, vegetable and salad for our picking, often available all year round. Great for making a winter squash soup in the middle of summer, or a tropical fruit salad in the dead of winter. Not so great, however, for the environment and possibly our nutritional profiles.
Doesn’t taste like it used to
There’s good reasoning behind my decision to source fresh produce from a seasonal and
organic vegbox scheme. Besides the massive savings I make buying wonky, unwashed and imperfect produce, I find the quality of the flavour is superior to anything I buy in the main supermarkets. I have become a person who can identify an organic carrot from a regular one, just by the taste (life in your 20s well lived, I think you’ll agree). But why?
Let’s start by looking at how the majority of crops are grown; seeds are sewn into over-worked and artificially fertilised soils, sapped of nutrients due to over-aggregation and a lack of proper crop rotation. As these crops sprout and grow, repeated spraying of pesticides and herbicides ward off unwanted intruders and grazers. These chemically-based contaminants often end up being taken up via the porous leaves or roots of the crop.
Next, upon harvest, crops are sorted and graded. Up to 40% of the harvest is deemed unacceptable for shops or supermarkets and is instead ploughed back into the ground or left to rot. Throw in water and air pollution from pesticides, the loss of natural habitats to human resources and the gross amount of greenhouse gasses produced, and your mass-scale farmed veg doesn’t look so appealing, does it?
Dig out your shovel
Now I completely understand that, for the most part, many of us simply do not have the time nor space to even sustain a cactus without killing it. It’s a trapping of the working environment that we find ourselves in.
However, there is scope for even the most manicured of thumbs to become greener given a few simple tips. Who knows, you might come off all escape-to-the-country, find yourself in green wellies and tartan, mucking around at an allotment to grow Little Uckington’s largest marrow 2018.
For the short of time
One of the most simple, but yet vital, plants to grow is undoubtedly any type of herb. Small, but mighty and brilliantly resilient, herbs are a modern working person’s answer to self-sustainability and flavour with minimal effort.
Basil, coriander, chives, mint, parsley, thyme and rosemary are all pretty hardy plants requiring a good source of light and watering every other day or so. Seeds can be purchased online, and you can even use ready-potted varieties if you prefer not to wait for the plants to grow.
If using an indoor growing space, be sure to avoid buying herbs that have been grown outdoors, as the sudden change in the environment will cause your herb’s untimely death.
Regular clipping of the herbs is essential to ensure longevity and increase their growth, and ensure you plant each herb separately in individual pots using organic potting soil wherever possible. Each pot should have adequate drainage holes and be placed within another larger pot, with room at the base to allow air to circulate, preventing mould.
For the window-box growers
If you are lucky enough to own a window-box, I envy you entirely. Window-boxes are great for the small-scale growers out there, and those of us who love a salad all year round will revel in producing our own cos lettuce and spring onions.
Your window-box should be positioned in direct sunlight for at least 5 hours a day. Pick out a 25cm wide pot that is at least 25-30cm deep, or drill holes in a previous container (such as peanut butter or protein powder tub) if you fancy getting all make do and mend.
Again, be sure to use potting compost, as it retains water to a higher degree of saturation and will help reduce nutrient leaching from the plant, and every now and again, enrich your soil with plant food in order to replenish the vital minerals your plant is using in order to grow.
Perfect window-box plants include any form of salad plant, such as mustard cress, watercress, radish, rocket, spinach, spring onions and different leafy salad plants. Certain types of pepper and berries such as strawberries can also be grown with ease from a window-box.
Outdoor patio space
No lush green lawn space? Fear not my wannabe horticultural enthusiasts. Investing in a couple of large potting tubs will get you far. The truth is, you don’t have to dedicate a large space of your garden or dig up your neighbour’s either.
Carrots, potatoes and root veg grow exceptionally well in deep plant pots. You can even improvise and use a deep trash can or emptied gravel bag to contain your veg while they grow. Use a soil-based compost and enrich it every so often with your own homemade compost (for the super savvy environmentalists out there) or shop-bought variety.
Be sure to allow them a well-lit space, and water the plants every now and again on the rare occasion we experience a heatwave. Planters of this kind require a little more patience, alongside trial and error, in order to master your growing technique.
For my fellow urbanites
This is all well and good, you may be thinking, sat in a minimalist, overpriced square-footage apartment, with windows that open just enough to allow city pollution to seep into your bedroom-dining-living area. I can relate. The most greenery you tend to see in big cities is the odd park. But things may be about to change – there’s a new green wave of urban farming about to burst into communities.
Many more urbanites are becoming accustomed to the idea of grow-your-own agriculture, utilising unique and unorthodox spaces such as rooftops and abandoned brownfield land, in order to bring a touch of the country into our concrete jungles. There is even a converted WW2 shelter in Clapham that is dedicated to growing fresh salad produce underground using hydroponics! In fact, the UK is pretty slow to catch onto the urban farming trend. There are already vast urban farms in Japan, Singapore, USA and the forward-thinking capital itself, Berlin.
Closer to home, a quick Google of urban growing projects around my city (Birmingham) reveals a host of community-led farms, sustainable farming in inspiringly compact areas, and local meet-ups of budding farmers all promoting smaller-scale urban farming. Try searching your local city’s facilities online, there’s bound to be many ways to utilise a Sunday afternoon.
Being amongst a more natural environment helps re-connect us back to our more primitive roots and aids in that all-important connection between us and nature. What could be more rewarding than roasting your own carrot, harvesting your hand-raised strawberries and devouring a fresh salad grown in your own community plot?
Whatever your abilities, experience or availability, there is bound to be a type of growing that you will love. My best advice would be to start off small, and work your way up. Don’t go all in for that prize-winning squash before you’ve even learnt to sow a seed. First, try your hand at indoor growing, and then you’ll soon be able to graduate towards something more adventurous.
Growing your own produce is also a great way to educate kids or loved ones about the value and importance of food. It’ll instil a sense of responsibility within you, and a connection to the earth and seasons that might take you by surprise. Truly a dig for more than one kind of victory.
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About the author
Charlotte is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with the Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness. She is currently researching and studying the various links between food and psychological health while pursuing a doctorate degree in counselling.