GROWING FOOD: A No-nonsense Beginner’s Guide (part one)

A Common Ground member recently told me she attended a talk about setting up an organic garden (which is more than I’ve ever done), and admitted that after being fed endless information about perma-culture, soil acidity and all sorts of other yadda-yadda, she came out of it more put off than motivated. So top prize to those organic perma-clowns for running that particular talk – yet another monumental failure in education!

I can’t be too critical of gardening experts, me being an ignorant amateur who accidentally ended up running an organic garden. But in my short time experimenting with growing food – with reasonable success – I have stuck with this simple rule: Growing food is about growing food, pure and simple. It’s not about crop rotation, it’s not about sustainability, it’s not about bla bla bla – these are all just additional extras. When you get a child to plant their first radish, chickpea or even cress, you certainly don’t start telling them about soil acidity or the embryonic dormancy phase of seeds (unless you’re aiming to put them off gardening for life). Simply put, a good way to start learning to grow food is to JUST PLANT SOMETHING AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS.

Still, here is a more specific guide for getting prepared. Apologies to anyone who thinks the next section is too simplistic, but I’ve seen people in London who barely know what a vegetable is, and so this guide is designed to give anyone a chance to have a go, no matter how little experience they have.

Step One: DECIDE YOU WANT TO DO THIS.

This may seem an odd one to start with, but what I mean is ask yourself: Why do you want to grow food? Is it to learn a new skill? To save money? To save the planet? To impress a girl or guy? Or is it just for fun? Those are all good reasons – except the second one. If you want to grow food to save money, then think again. As I mentioned in a recent post, when you tally in the cost and effort, growing food at home rarely comes out cheaper than market prices. If you want to save money, you can probably find a dozen other luxuries you can cut down on (booze, ciggies, magazines, petrol, crappy electronic gadgets with a fruit logo on the back, etc.).

Next, ask yourself: Do you really have the time and dedication to try this, or is it a passing whim that will die down after a week? A good test is to wait a week and see if you still want to do it. I’m not trying to be flippant, I’m just trying to save you time, money and effort. Some people get very excited about the idea of planting something and later eating it, but they are not so keen on the long bit in between which inconveniently constitutes 99% the food growing process, watching that little plant grow oh-so-slowly yet still requiring water, light and associated TLC.

Step Two: START SMALL AND CHEAP.

One of the frustrating things about getting started with growing food is dealing with the initial expenses and preparation. Gardening books generally come with an equipment list as long as the Nile, the total cost of which would bankrupt Rupert Murdoch. Not only can this expense be both daunting and a strain on one’s finances, but it can also make the beginner think twice about starting up; after all, why buy all that equipment if you’re not even sure you’re going to keep this up for more than a few days? There is also the annoying inconvenience that gardening in most cases tends to require a garden, something that not everyone in the UK is blessed with.

Here are a few ways to keep costs down when getting started:

1) Don’t use the garden (yet).

There’s plenty of things you can grow indoors in little pots to begin with. These will serve as a good test both of your resolve and skills, as well as give you a leisurely start to this hobby without already having to stress about things like weeds or the weather.

2) Don’t buy gardening books.

Just tell your friends and relatives you are going to try to grow food and they will probably get you all the books you need for Christmas or your birthday (probably grateful of the fact they know what to get you). In fact, be prepared for at least one of your relatives to keep giving you gardening books for the rest of your life (there’s always one); if you are lucky they might even get you some gardening equipment, which would be a bonus. In the meantime, for information use the internet, support your local library or visit your local community garden.

3) Avoid gardening shops.

Gardening shops are ideal for experienced gardeners who know what they are after, and huge gardening centers do offer a great selection of equipment, plants, seeds, etc., but their prices can be deceptively expensive. As for the small, supposedly specialized gardening shops you sometimes come across in random places (or very middle-class shopping districts), they are often the worst offenders when it comes to ripping people off; I know it’s good to support independent businesses, but some of them do just take the piss. So, without having been paid to say this, go to a shop like Wilkinson’s where you will generally find the gardening basics you need at cheap prices. You can make all your early mistakes with that stuff before deciding to upgrade. There are of course benefits to buying the right equipment, first of all it does test your resolve a little bit, but without driving you out onto the streets; secondly tools and equipment do require some level of quality. This doesn’t mean you should buy a ridiculously over-priced and over-engineered spade that was designed by NASA scientists (I only exaggerate slightly), but neither should you buy a £1.99 excuse for a spade made of a metal so bendy it makes cream cheese look like solid steel. There is a balance to be struck.

4) Recycle rubbish.

I bet your bin is full of small plastic containers that came with the food you bought (instant noodle pots, yoghurt pots, ready salad boxes, etc.), so why buy a set of plant pots when you can reuse those? Poke a few holes at a bottom of an empty Pot Noodle and behold! You now have a plant pot.

5) Save your principles for later.

Controversial one. You will make mistakes at the beginning (such as over-watering or under-watering), that’s a given, so would you rather make mistakes with a cheap packet of seeds and soil and a recycled Pot Noodle (total cost £2), or with an expensive packet of organic-super-plus-luxury seeds and mightier-than-though fair-trade soil and a terracotta pot made by your local artisan (total cost £20+)? IDEALLY, we want to work our way toward growing food organically, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do so gradually. Just do make sure the soil you buy is suitable for food growing (check on the packet).

Step three: GET AN EDIBLE PLANT.

Before trying to grow a plant from seed, it helps to check if you can keep an existing one alive. Buy one or two herb plants, something simple, sturdy and pest free like rosemary or sage. DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT buy it from a supermarket, no matter how cheap it is, as most supermarket herb plants are artificially boosted and designed to die soon after you get it home (shame on them). This is a case where you can afford to visit a garden centre, you should find decent herb plants there for about £3, give or take. Find a good spot for it at home, depending on the plant, either indoors or outdoors. Ask at the shop for advice, or check the net. Keep the plant alive and healthy, use its leaves for your dishes or to make herbal tea, learning not to overuse it. If aphids attack then learn how to deal with them.

That’ll do for now. Enjoy the plant and learn from it. If it dies, it dies; you’ll learn from that too. Next we’ll look at actually planting things.

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BOING!!! Spring in the Air!

Been very busy lately with writing my dissertation and exam revisions, but of course like Bruce Wayne’s batphone when the garden calls it cannot be ignored. As a result, what with the nice weather we’ve had lately, I’m possibly one of the few final year university students in the country to have a tan.

We’ve been sowing seeds in trays over the past few weeks, in the hope of transplanting them in late April. BUT that (CENSORED) of a mouse Jerry has been digging into the seed-sowing trays, eating the peas, pumpkin and cucumber seeds. I have recently installed hanging trays in the shed in the hope that Jerry can’t get to them, and laid yet more traps to catch him once and for all. Failing that I am thinking of taking out a contract with a hit-mouse, or perhaps hiring some mousenaries to hunt him down (the jokes just keep getting worse).

To prepare for planting we have been mulching the empty beds using plastic sheets, especially covering last year’s fallow bed after turning the soil over, which will resume service this month, leaving last year’s beetroot bed to lie fallow this year.

In preparation for sowing we also completely rebuilt the old garden hot-box for seedlings, making it sturdier than ever, in the hope of freeing up shelf-space in the shed. To be extra flash we added a frontal window to the box so that it would make the most of the morning sunlight. Foam pipe insulators were added help seal the edges of the perspex lid, but can be removed to provide extra ventilation.

Although it has been getting sunnier lately it the weather remains quite cold. But still, it is good to see the winter come to an end. We did some good work over the winter, especially taking satisfaction in doing some proper manual work with hammer and nails, repairing the compost bins, the shed door and the beds, and rebuilding the hot box. Speaking for myself, these are the kind of jobs that you just feel like staring at once you are done, taking pride in the fact you have built something with your own hands.

But now is Spring and a time for planting! We so far have beetroot, peas and tomato plants growing in pots, ready to transplant in the near future. We have also sown some carrots, cauliflowers and peppers, and resown some more pumpkin and cucumber seeds (hopefully Jerry-proofed). Because we use soil made on-site from compost, we noticed that the resulting soil is not quite suitable for sowing. The large chicken wire sifter we usually use produces soil that is suitable for the garden beds, but still too lumpy for the delicate little seeds we were sowing in tiny trays. Fellow CG member Leonardo tried sifting the soil in a pasta strainer, but it proved too laborious. Inspired by his attempt, we finally resolved the problem by leaving some soil to dry in the shed and then sifting it through a straw hat we had in the shed. It produces a fine powdery soil that is perfect for the sowing trays.

I have to confess that in spite of taking on a second undergraduate degree and agreeing in my final year to run a community garden, I am actually a rather lazy person at heart. Today being Easter Sunday, opening the garden as usual, I was expecting it to be a solo effort, and I was fully prepared to sit by the rocket stove for four hours drinking nettle tea and eating hot-cross buns with jam. Luckily the unexpected arrival of three CG members encouraged me to get off my ass and organize doing some work. And so today we sifted some more soil, drew up a watering rota, did a little weeding, replanted the yarrow and marshmallow plants in the ‘med bed’ and sowed more seeds in trays – leeks, artichoke, and “Japanese huh?” . . . I should explain. Over the past few weeks, workers at a nearby Japanese restaurant have been kindly donating some of their organic vegetable waste for our compost bin (thank you very much – どうもありがとう!). Earlier this week one of them came by with more compost, as well as a small tray of seeds for me. She mentioned the Japanese name of the edible plant the seeds came from, which I repeated to myself three times in order to memorize it and then promptly forgot. And so today I sowed some of these seeds in a tray, and for the time being have decided to call them “Japanese, huh?” until such a time I can identify it.

With that kind of attention to detail, it’s a miracle that anything grows here, but all in all we seem to be doing quite well. Thank God it’s Spring.

Happy Easter!

WATER SHORTAGE: Everybody say hosepipe ban!

Things are starting to bloom in the garden, although planting has yet to start proper. The rhubarb, onions, garlic, broad beans and spring cabbage are growing fast, and it also turns out that with the cabbage last autumn I accidentally planted some calabrese, which has started to give those delicious little trees! All this time I thought it was more cabbage, luckily though, calabrese/broccoli leaves are edible too – though it’s usually best not to find out these things in retrospect. On that note, I’d like to mention that contrary to what many believe, rhubarb stalks are edible raw (and delicious if you don’t find them too tangy), just remember that the leaves are poisonous, both raw and cooked, causing nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and possibly death . . . best not chew on those then.

I’m having some more trouble with Jerry mouse, but more about that at a later time…

Today several water companies in the UK have imposed a hosepipe ban, due to the severe drought we’re going through. It’s no joke, either. As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been doing a lot of commuting on foot in the past year, and that has in part been made possible by the fact that it has hardly rained at all. Sure, we’ve had the occasional heavy showers, but what we’ve lacked is a prolonged period of rain, long enough to make us Brits properly moan about the weather – an important part of what makes us British.

Ever since Dinwiddy House kindly installed a tap on the garden grounds I’ve been meaning to buy a new connector to attach the hose to it . . . but I won’t bother now, not for a time at least. I have ordered a second water butt to connect to our current water barrel collecting rain running off the shed roof. The ban will not be a huge problem for us, the garden is small enough to water with a watering can, and even if that proves slower and more laborious it only helps remind us that running water is a luxury we don’t half take for granted.

The ban has got lots of people talking and moaning about it, with particular ire directed toward the water companies. It’s with good reason too – some water companies lose up to a quarter of their water through leaking pipes, and yes, the filthy-rich bastards should be doing more (i.e.: spending more) to fix this problem. BUT, it’s just a guess, BUT I am willing to bet that another quarter of our water is easily lost through general misuse and wastage by us common folk (including me). There are people with the annoying habit of flushing the toilet both before and after using it. Then there’s those who use a full cycle on their washing machines to clean just one or two items of clothing. And ban or no ban, I’m sure there will still be some prized a-holes who will resolutely use thousands of litres of water to wash their ugly, over-priced cars, when a bucket and sponge would do just as well. These are extreme examples, if still common, but most of us have little bad habits when it comes to using tap water. We love blaming the people at the top, but the truth is we are all to blame. And then, of course, come the excuses: “Don’t you know how busy I am?!” “I have three kids!” “It’s my right!” etc.

The trouble is water is a finite resource, and when it starts running low Mother Nature doesn’t give a rat’s ass about people’s excuses, reasons or rights. The water just starts running low. That’s when we really start to learn. Yes there is still plenty of water around, but the real problem is treating it fast enough to meet demand. I’ve been in a few forays in the woods in the past year where I have had to drink stream water. To make the water safe to drink I had to boil it first, which takes a surprising amount of effort to make up the 2-3 litres needed on a daily basis. At times like these I learnt to appreciate the value of water and tried not to waste a single drop of anything I had already sterilised.

Fixing pipes and reducing wastage aside, several solutions are being suggested for dealing with growing water shortages: higher bills, water meters, transporting water via pipelines, desalinization plants, etc. All these would probably help, but with the global population continuing to grow, water wastage ever-increasing, and a weakening infrastructure of water distribution based on profit instead of efficiency, water shortages are probably only going to get worse over the next few decades.

So today is a very good day to start learning to do with less.