Five lessons in growing food for the first time – from a food growing convert
Media Volunteer Audrey Wilson shares some top tips on growing food for the first time.
Although I’ve been growing flowers for a few years now I hadn’t grown so much as a lone garden pea until last year.
Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps, there’s more at stake if I grow my own food. If I grow some flowers and they don’t do so well, then that’s no big deal. But if I spend months nurturing some broccoli only to find a pigeon has eaten it before I get the chance , somehow that feels like a defeat.
And what if I grow an outrageously high yield of cabbages? Do I panic eat them to avoid food waste? I don’t even like cabbages so why am I even contemplating them?
Then there’s talk of carrot flies, bolts and blights.
I guess I’ve just been a bit intimidated by it all.
So, this time last year I decided to just start. And all in all, I’d say it was a very worthwhile experience. While I’ve still a lot to learn, here are the things I picked up along the way. I hope these tips may well be just the ticket to kick start your home-grown adventure. After all, now is the perfect time of year to do it.
My tips to help you get started
1. As I said… just start
When I looked up how to grow veg, I found there’s so much out there it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Is your soil ok? How should you plan your growing patch? What varieties are best? When in the growing season do you start? How much space do you need?
It’s all relevant, but it can be too much. So, the best thing is to make a decision to start and just…
2. Choose one thing you like to eat
Seed catalogues make everything look delicious. So much so that when I first started browsing, I was drawn to growing butternut squashes. I don’t know why as I don’t especially like them. I certainly don’t fancy panic eating them if I happen to grow too many. Or being known as that friend who always turns up at gatherings trying to give away spare butternut squashes.
Just walk into your garden centre of choice and choose something you like to eat. Don’t overthink it. Just choose one. Trying one crop this year is better than trying none. Next year you can try more. Or something different.
3. Choose something you often waste
If you feel lost at tip number 2 because you like lots of different things, then maybe this tip might help you to narrow it down.
Many of the recipes I cook need just one or two lonely spring onions. I usually buy a bunch from the supermarket, use two, and then find the rest shrivelled at the back of the fridge weeks later. Spring onions can be grown and harvested as you need them, and they don’t take up much space. Salad leaves or herbs are good for this too.
4. Think about how far things travel
I’m always struck by how scabby supermarket green beans and sugar snap peas are, and they’ve usually managed to see far too much of the world. I don’t use them often, but they can be frozen.
5. Take advantage of the space you have
Most crops need sun and a regular drink. That’s it. As long as you can provide these, then you’re good to go.
There are so many options if you are limited on space and still want to grow something – herbs and salad in window boxes. Potatoes in planters. Tomatoes on a windowsill. Take advantage of height with things like peas.
In 2022 I built a 300cm x 120cm raised bed and got started with that. It felt like a decent space to try a few things without it being too much.
How it went
The good: Potatoes (Charlotte), carrots (Nantes), and spring onions (blood red)
My six seed potatoes resulted in several kilos of nicely sized, delicious potatoes that lasted a while. We eat carrots and spring onions little and fairly often, so I loved how fancy it was, wandering into the garden to select what I needed knowing they were uber fresh from the ground. And my goodness they tasted GOOD.
The ok: Peas and salad leaves
Both were successful, but to a point. I loved the garden peas, but I felt the effort versus the crop yield wasn’t great. The salad leaves were delicious when we remembered to eat them, but I left them growing too long and they went to flower. When that happens, they’re too bitter (as I learned).
The bad: Green beans
They germinated, then when I planted them out, they keeled over and disappeared.
The ugly: Broccoli
Well, this is a sorrowful tale. My first attempt became infested by caterpillars. My second attempt was protected with netting but resulted in a little bird getting caught in it and dying. No crop is worth that. So, I removed the netting, and then the pigeons ate them.
My verdict for 2023
Irrational as it is, the food shortages at the beginning of the pandemic and this recent winter have spooked me a little into wondering how my family would survive if we suddenly had to become self-sufficient. I’m not saying a few potatoes are going to save us, but it’s better than my back-up plan to fish for something edible out of the Beveridge Park pond!
More sensibly than the above, I’m becoming ever more conscious about carbon emissions associated with food miles and food waste, as well as all the chemicals and packaging. If we all grow something, that’s a little less fuel and chemicals needed to get it onto our plates.
This year I’m sticking to my successes of 2022 as well as trying some new crops. I’m growing a small number of potato seeds (three varieties this time), carrots and spring onions.
I planted some onions and garlic in October and (I think) they’re looking ok.
I’m going to try growing courgettes because I hear they’re easy. And I’m going to grow a variety of tomatoes that are suitable for growing outdoors. I may try salad leaves again because I have some seeds left over.
So, this is your sign. Delicious, unbeatably fresh, cost effective, eco-conscious food awaits. Now is the time to do it. And it’s tremendously satisfying.
- For more local help and events, why not check out the Ravenscraig Walled Garden?
- Last year Media Volunteer Lia shared her tips on growing your own. You can read her blog here.
- This article from Gardeners World shares their top crops for beginners.
Audrey Wilson, Media Volunteer|