Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Is it worth growing your own food?

A lot more people are growing a bit of fruit and veg now and it seems to be one of the good things to come out of this recession.  Yes, there are some good things, though not so much if you have lost your job and are really struggling.
If you are struggling it may be even more worthwhile to grow some food. 
the equation works like this:
There is the actual value of the food if you were to buy it.  Now on this basis, the gains are small for the work and hours you put in. However if your produce is organic you may find you are eating healthier food than you could afford to buy as well as saving a bit of money compared to the cost of buying the non organic alternative.  If you compare the price of the organic food directly the savings are greater. the food is or course very fresh so its nutritional value will be better than even the shop bought organic produce.
Our strawberry bed is only 10 feet x 4 feet (3mx 1.5) and we get a kilo/2.4lbs of strawberries a day for a month from it.  It is in the front garden and does not even look out of place.
All for the price of a compost bin of our own kitchen waste each year.  perennial crops like strawberries, raspberries blackcurrants and apples give a lot of food for relatively little work and expense.

You get free exercise Cancel that gym membership for the summer - it probably exercises your wallet more than it exercises you anyway.  Put the £20-40/$10-20 a month it saves you (even assuming you did not drive the car to the gym and use fuel to get there) in a savings account.  It can pay for next year's load of manure in one month and the seeds in another.  All the rest is a saving.

Substitute your own produce for what you would normally buy.  This means that a home grown potato is the equivalent of not only shop bought organic potatoes  but also can replace rice or pasta.  It does more than that, because there are a whole host of meals actually based on potatoes, such as potato and spinach curry, baked potatoes, potatoes au gratin etc.  Add four different varieties of veg and salad (eg stir fried chard, mange tout & shallots with a lettuce & rocket salad made with four kinds of lettuce) and who would not feel it is a meal.  If you want to add meat, fish eggs or cheese go for it but they do not need to be the centre of the meal unless you want them to be.  But don't worry too much about the protein.  It is actually hard for someone in the Western world to ed up with a protein deficiency.  The amount an adult needs per day is only 00g/4oz which is smaller than almost any protein serving we have at one meal these days.  A child needs a little more if they are growing but only about 6ozs/150g.  One glass of milk and a small piece of meat, an egg or a small amount of cheese in other words.

Added value.
Added value means making things with your produce that you would pay more for, such as chutney and jam, dried fruit, pies etc.  Then the produce replaces something more expensive to buy.  Another idea is to dry things like apple rings and strawberries to add to muesli.  We dried strawberries ad blackcurrants this year and I wish we had done more.

How to make chutney.
Plum chutney
I have just made four jars of plum, apple and carrot chutney.  I added curry spices, chilli and ginger and it will replace expensive lime pickle to go with curries.  Delicious.  Just pick any chutney recipe and substitute any other fruit or veg for the one specified.  Change the spices and seasoning.  I miss out the raisins and sultanas too.

Swap produce with friends. 
It is good to grow a smaller amount of more different things and eat them as they go rather than waiting until they are 'ready' especially with potatoes.  Another idea is to swap with friends so that you get more variety.  I just swapped some of our grapes and celery for some plums to make the chutney with.  Makes a change.

Instead of freezing it all as veg, make soup and stews and freeze those.
 That means you have a freezer full of healthy, organic ready meals.  the main thing that stops people using all the veg they grow is that they get home from work hungry.  It is raining and they do not want to dig up veg, wash and cook it before they can eat.  Pick and wash salad in advance and keep it in plastic boxes in the fridge.  Then is is just as handy as bought, bagged salad.

It takes practise to get the best yields
Bear in mind that in your first year the yields will not be as high because it will probably take a couple of years to build up the soil fertility - annual veg crops in particular need a lot of nutrients.  In the beginning, more things will not succeed due to learning and after two or three seasons you will have a better idea what is likely to do well in your locality.

Get gardening - not shopping!
The buying habit can simply transfer itself to gardening and then there will be little financial benefit for quite a while.  Buying expensive plastic raised beds, bags of compost and fertiliser (hopefully organic fertiliser at least), exotic seeds and expensive seed varieties that promise all sorts of things will soon break the bank.  The garden products and seeds that promise all those miracles are a bit like hair and beauty products.
Eventually you learn to be selective after ten different products do not make your hair shinier or give bigger yields of extra fast growing crops, but in the meantime it costs a lot!
And fertiliser is of course good old fashioned manure.  Horse or cow manure will do fine.  There is no need to worry about E Coli contamination - composting the manure for a year takes care of it and it is apparently only present in cow manure not in horse manure as it does not survive the gut of the horse.  If you are worried, compost it for two years and pretty much all experts agree it is safe.

Network or join a gardening club
lots of things on sale at the garden centre are being chucked out by gardeners all over the country.  eventually mature plants need thinning out and the surplus just goes on the compost heap.  Many gardeners hate the waste and will be delighted to give you cuttings and root stocks.  For instance, blackcurrants must be pruned each year.  Just shove some of the prunings in the ground and they grow new bushes.  Or you can buy them for £8/$14 each of course.  Raspberries throw up suckers.  These are what the garden centres pot up and sell to us as new plants, but many gardeners have to throw them away.  The garden centre would say theirs are better and disease free, but every time I have had a disease it came from a garden centre, not from a friend, who would tell you if there was a problem after all. 

Garden companies tell us it is too risky to use supermarket potatoes as seed because of the risk of disease.  But you can see disease on potatoes and I have often seen it on seed potatoes, which lets face it are grown in a field just like any other potato is.

Blight is the biggest threat to potatoes in temperate zones with high rain fall.  It caused the Irish potato famine.  Sarpo varieties of potatoes are very blight resistant - they just don't get blight - and therefore you can save a few for next year once you have some.  You can also just leave a few in the ground.  common wisdom is that this spreads disease - but most gardeners will have noticed that the once that got left in the ground are usually the only ones that don't get blight!

Keep it simple to start with.
Grow a few potatoes, some broad beans, leeks onions and salad crops such as rocket and lettuce.  If you live somewhere with a reasonable climate, try some runner beans and courgettes.  Buy standard seed varieties.  the tried and tested ones are often the cheapest and the newer more expensive varieties not always worth the extra cash.
 And do the sums, do not waste money on expensive promises and buy good basic seeds.

What did we grow this year?
Well it is not over yet.  We have  a small polytunnel and there will be produce in it until Christmas. 
Our best producers this year (in common with most gardeners) are:
Rhubarb 10kg
One day's strawberry pickings.  about 3kg.  They semi ripe ones will be ripe by morning.
Strawberries 30kg
Blackcurrants 30kg
Apples 25kg (small cordon trees along a fence then they fit in a small garden)
Potatoes about 20kg
Broad beans 10kg
Courgettes about 10kg so far
Tomatoes 3kg so far and lots more to come
Lettuce and rocket  as much as we could eat since April  (got to the lettuce soup stage!)
Onions, shallots & leeks.  more still to come but about  5kg in total
lots of tasty but less productive things such as grapes, mange tout and purple podded peas 10kg in total.
20kg of celery.

that's 173 kg of fruit and veg at a conservative estimate.  That is a lot of food.  It is probably nearer 200 kg in actual fact and we grow veg all winter too.  Although the returns are less in January and Febtruary, the cost of fresh produce is more in winter so the savings on salad in October to December are significant.    At a cost to buy of £2/$4 a kilo that is £346 $692 approx.  We spent about £100 on the garden - £40/$80 for a load of manure, £40/$80 on seeds and £20/$40 on books and other things. 

We had a load of fun and the food tasted better than anything we could buy.  Actually keeping accounts of the financial costs and benefits has been great fun too.

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