Grow your own groceries and reap the rewards
By feeding yourself from your own garden, you can learn a few new tricks while saving a fortune on fruit and veg
Grow it yourself: a great way to save money. Photograph: Getty Images
Gardening has become rocket science all of a sudden after news this month that astronauts are growing their own vegetables in space, suggesting the popularity of the Grow It Yourself movement has scaled new heights.
Although growing the food for your own table comes with feel-good freshness, variety, and sustainability, does it make economic sense? And where do you start if you’re space- and time-poor, and without a green finger?
Space isn’t really a problem says Trevor Sargent, the former minister for food. He says he “learned the hard way” that you don’t need a large space in which to grow a wide range of fruit and vegetables. The back garden on which he based his book Trevor’s Kitchen Garden was just 20ft by 40ft and included everything from cape gooseberries to runner beans. And if you choose carefully, growing low- maintenance crops, then green fingers won’t be needed.
Thomas Quearney, or Mr Middleton of the shop of the same name, says that the “microgreens” – such as rocket, watercress, mixed salad leaves – are well worth growing. Salad leaves such as these aren’t fussy about where they grow – window boxes, large yoghurt pots, old plastic tubs, or almost any container that has about six inches of soil and drainage holes at the bottom.
Balconies may be able to accommodate an old step ladder for “vertical” planting on each step with containers. A packet of mixed salad leaves with 1,000 seeds costs about €2.69. By contrast, a 100g bag of baby leaf rocket, which might do one family meal, costs €1.99 in the supermarket. For the best value, the trick is to grow in succession. Resist the temptation to sow a whole packet of seeds in one go, and space them out in sowings every fortnight, thus guaranteeing a supply all summer long.
James Kilkelly, a garden designer from Co Galway who also runs the websites irishgardeners.com and allotments.ie, also advises starting with salad ingredients as well as spring onions, radishes and baby carrots. Baby carrots are perhaps ideally suited to balconies, as the dreaded carrot root fly is a poor flyer, so planting carrots from 75cm above the ground should work.
Go herb bananas
Herbs too can result in great savings. A packet of 150 coriander seeds costs €2.20; an 80g packet of fresh coriander €1.99. A balcony can also support strawberries and even gooseberries, which Kilkelly points out are good at withstanding wind and can tolerate some shade. There are even thornless gooseberries available now, well worth seeking out as their thorns are pretty wicked. Mr Middleton’s Garden Shop has a Lady Sun yellow thornless gooseberry for €19.95 (or two for €30).
One of the best ways to acquire plants is to meet other gardeners and swap seeds, seedlings and cuttings with them. And as many gardeners find, it’s not a shortage but a glut of produce that often results when you start to grow your own, so it is handy to have others to barter with. The Grow It Yourself movement has branches nationwide, which can be found at giyinternational.org. GIY’s Michael Kelly suggests beginner growers start small and keep it manageable, so “expertise can catch up with one’s enthusiasm”. Containers or small raised beds are a better way to start than digging a huge patch all at once.
Even 1m sq of land can produce 40 beetroots or carrots. Two or three purple sprouting broccoli plants is more than enough to feed a family, and, even when there are no broccoli flower heads to eat, the leaves make a milder alternative to cabbage. Other easy vegetables to grow are garlic, radish and courgettes, which will also grow happily in tubs and produce a good number per plant. A packet of 25 courgette seeds costs about €3 and they germinate easily. Oriental salads such as mizuna and mibuna, which might not be available in shops, as well as pak choi, mustard leaves and oriental rockets, are also worth trying, he suggests.
They’re easy to grow, hardy and produce a crop that can be cut and cut again. Seeds can be bought from a variety of outlets, including irishseedsavers.ie; brownenvelopeseeds.com; greenvegetableseeds.com and theorganic centre.ie.
But where growing your own really becomes lucrative is when you grow something that’s expensive to buy, such as soft fruit. Blackcurrants, redcurrants and raspberries sell for about €3.29 per 125g – enough to adorn the top of a cake but not much more. By contrast, you can buy soft fruit bushes for €6.99 in Woodies (Aldi had fruit trees and canes for €4.99 at the beginning of February) that will last for years. One mature blackcurrant can produce about 6kg of fruit, which at supermarket prices would cost you €156. Just allow enough room for your fledgling fruit bush to grow. These plants are idiot-proof, and can be left to get on with it, just like rhubarb, which sells for about €3 a stool, not much more than a bunch in the supermarket.
Websites such as jumbletown.ie advertise items that are being given away that might otherwise end up in landfill.
CROP FAILURE: A SUMMER BLIGHTED BY THE HUMBLE SPUD
It was worse than the famine in the Pope home last summer. In early March I went to a fancy garden centre and found four bags of seed potatoes and handed over €30. Then I bought six heavy plastic sacks for much the same price. Then I spent another €70 on what I was told was “special potato soil”. It looked like regular peat, but the man who sold it to me assured me it was magic stuff that would grow enough spuds to keep me going until winter.
I followed all the instructions, put some magic soil in the bags, and planted some of the seed potatoes – on St Patrick’s Day, which, I had heard on the gardening grapevine, was a tradition. Then I waited a couple of weeks until green shoots appeared, then added more soil. And some more seeds. I watered my crop carefully and waited some more. As the green shoots turned into sturdy saplings – or whatever potato stems are called – I added more soil and water.
Then, like the last days of imperial Russia, everything started to lean alarmingly to the left. I tried to get my potatoes to stand tall, but they kept falling over. Panicked, I stuck sturdy bamboo rods into the bags of muck and tied them to my potato stalks.
I went on holiday. A drought came. When I got back, my potatoes were parched. The green stalks had yellowed and gone limp. I flooded the bags. I bought Baby Bio and applied it like a teenage boy using his dad’s aftershave before his first disco. They didn’t respond. When harvest time came, I dug deep and came up with nine potatoes. All told, I spent €140 on my potatoes or €14 per spud. They wouldn’t have cost that much in Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud.