Thought growing your own vegetables was just for people with gardens? Think again! Lottie Storey pulls on her gardening gloves to show you how to grow vegetables at home even when you're short on space.
According to Professor Dave Goulson, author of The Garden Jungle: or Gardening to Save the Planet, we have enough land in our back gardens to produce more fruit and veg than the UK consumes every year.
Giving over half of the average garden to growing crops would produce 7.5 million tonnes of fruit and veg a year in the UK.
With national consumption at 6 .9 tonnes, 77 % of which is imported, the benefits of engaging us individuals with this national challenge are obvious.
Now add on the studies that show positive links between spending time in nature and improved mental wellbeing, and the proof is there to see – as individuals we can actually make a difference to ourselves, our communities and our future.
And it all begins in our own backyard. Or balcony. Or window box. Let us explain and show you how to grow vegetables at home.
There’s no place too small to grow food
One of the misconceptions about growing edibles at home is that you need a generous garden. Not true. Small spaces lend themselves to herbs, which can be grown on balconies and window sills.
Although they don’t take up much space, herbs go an extraordinarily long way, enlivening home-cooked dishes with distinct flavour as well as making soothing and restorative herbal teas.
Try growing strawberries in hanging baskets, chillies in plant pots that clip to drainpipes (self-watering!) and salad leaves in loaf tins on the windowsill.
For those with their sights set a little higher, contact your local council to find out about allotments in your area.
With over 300,000 allotment holders in the UK (and another 100,000 on waiting lists), you could tap into a community of friendly gardeners, many of whom are happy to show you the ropes and to trade produce when glut season comes around. Who didn’t get offered courgettes last summer?
Herbs and vegetables can even be grown on balconies.
If you miss out on one of those infamously tough-to-secure allotment spaces, don’t despair.
Cinead McTernan is a garden writer and author of several books, including One-Pot Gourmet Gardener. “There are plenty of great books that show how just a one-metre square garden can provide veg for a family,” she says.
“But obviously, the bigger the better! Don’t be despondent if you don’t have acres at your disposal – containers are great for veg, you’ll just need to have a priority list and decide which ones you’d most enjoy harvesting.”
And if you do have a decent garden, what are the first steps? Cinead advises noting whether the spot is sunny or shady, as well as what the soil is like. “If it looks dry and crumbly or lumpy with clay, you’ll need to add organic compost to improve the nutrients in the soil.
Depending on the above, you can start with whatever crop excites you. Think about what you like eating. There’s no point growing varieties that you don’t normally enjoy!”
If you’re clever with timing, you could plan a harvest throughout the year so think seasonally. “It’s also worth thinking about buying plug plants (small seedlings) rather than seeds,” suggests Cinead, “unless you have space for seedlings to grow, as well as the time and enthusiasm.
Plugs are a beginner’s best friend when learning how to grow vegetables because they’re more likely to establish and grow, rewarding your efforts with a good harvest.
Seeds are great fun to grow, especially for speedy crops like salads, but they can be tricky to raise and the key to growing veg is to be able to enjoy freshly picked crops. It can be disheartening if seeds fail.”
Containers are great for vegetables when space is limited.
As well as available space, a key thing to factor in is how you buy plants. Plastic gardening waste is a big issue – 87% of local councils that could recycle garden plastics, don’t. The first step to growing any plant is to fill a container with compost.
With most garden centres selling single-use plastic-potted plants, plastic seed trays and planters for this purpose, it’s perhaps slightly less convenient, but much more environmentally friendly to seek out alternatives such as reusable wooden seed trays or terracotta pots, or to buy plugs and plants that come in biodegradable or compostable containers.
For a free and eco-friendly option, rummage through your recycling bin for empty cardboard containers or even loo roll tubes, all of which make excellent seed trays and planters.
Instead of plastic grow bags, you can buy reusable hessian sacks for planting crops like potatoes, carrots and courgettes. Bonus – they look much prettier, too.
From a practical perspective, you will need to plan your planting well. If you’re growing in beds and borders, make sure they aren’t too wide or too deep as you need to be able to reach across them to sow, plant and harvest.
“It’s preferable not to walk on the soil,” agrees Cinead. “This can compact it and make it hard for crops to grow. Make sure you can water the crops easily and that the plot is relatively sheltered – winds and frost will cause problems in a veg patch.
“Don’t forget to grow upwards, too, making use of wigwams and trellis to train peas, beans and even gourds and pumpkins.”
Gourds and pumpkins might sound like advanced gardening, but that’s not the case. Basic veg that even beginners can attempt include salads, beans, radish, beetroot, carrots, tomatoes and courgettes.
These are all annuals – crops you grow each season. Perennials are crops you plant once and grow back year after year, such as fruit, herbs, and veg like asparagus and artichokes.
Growing organic food
If you’re growing your own vegetables to lighten the load on the planet, you’ll definitely want to avoid chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Growing organically isn’t as tricky as it might sound. According to the charity Garden Organic, there are five pillars of organic gardening.
Easy ways to achieve organic gardening nirvana include installing a water butt to capture rainwater rather than using the tap to water plants, crop rotation (switching plants and locations to create better soil), and companion planting (where you plant complementary crops next to each other, such as marigolds protecting tomato plants from whiteflies and nematodes.)
From plots and planning to purchasing and planting, growing your own might sound complicated, but there’s a huge community of gardeners on the internet who are glad to help.
“Whatever you do, have a go,” says Cinead. “If you’re nervous, start with one or two crops to build confidence. Once you’ve harvested your first tomato or added freshly mint to a salad, you won’t look back!”
The five pillars of organic gardening…
- Build and maintain soil health. The soil is full of life, which supports healthy plant growth.
- Encourage biodiversity. Different life forms such as plants, insects, birds and mammals all have a role in creating a resilient growing system.
- Use resources responsibly. The organic grower uses resources (water, energy, wood, plastic and growing containers) sustainably, with minimum damage to the planet.
- Avoid using harmful chemicals. Toxic chemicals used to kill weeds, diseases and pests can damage the health of your growing area, and all the life-forms within and beyond it.
- Maintain a healthy growing area. Keeping your growing area in good health, rather than just pest and disease-free, is at the heart of organic growing. A diverse and vigorous growing system, good hygiene, and close observation all help prevent problems.