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

In the last sections we went through the basic preparations, mainly involving not getting ripped-off and looking after herb plants. Now we will look at growing food in pots, as a practice run for bigger projects.

 Step one: GROW CRESS AND MUSTARD

This may seem like a bit of a childish activity, but if you’ve never grown food before this is a good way to start, as it is both instructive and rewarding. Cress is one of the easiest and cheapest things to grow, and you’ll be enjoying what you grow within ten days. Buy a small packet of cress seeds, sprinkle some of them onto a wet paper towel in a small tray or shallow container. Cover loosely with paper or card, or place in a dark place for the first day or two. After just 24 hours you’ll see the seeds already begin to germinate, after two days, once you can tell apart root and stem uncover or move them to a well-lit spot, making sure to keep the paper towel moist. After a week or two they will be fully grown and ready to pick to add to salads, soups or sandwiches. You can then keep growing more of it. Have several small trays growing cress in a rotation so you can harvest some every two or three days. Try the same with mustard seeds. Maintaining several trays growing in rotation is like managing a tiny garden, so it’s good preparation for the real thing.

 Step two: POT PLANTING

Right, enough of the warm-up, let’s get planting. You’ll need a small bag of soil, suitable for growing food; a few pots for planting, either genuine or using recycled rubbish; and some seeds. What seeds to get? We want something cheap and cheerful, and all the better if you can get them straight from a vegetable.

Edible things you can grow in pots include radishes, nasturtium, basil (and other herbs from seed), tomatoes, carrots, garlic, lettuce, chard and spinach, amongst others. Unless the seed packet says otherwise, just poke a shallow hole in the soil, pop a seed in and cover lightly. Remember to water it gently at first so as not to wash off the top layer of soil and the seed! Radish seeds are cheap to buy, they grow reliably and fairly quickly and don’t require a large pot (a trusty Pot Noodle will do). The garlic and leafy plants can start off in something small and later be repotted into a bigger pot (or an old ice cream tub?) to give the roots more space; use old garlic cloves from your cupboard that have started sprouting. Tomatoes will probably require the most time and effort to grow, and are best repotted into a genuine pot to give it maximum space and support to develop. Furthermore, unless kept outdoors, you will probably need to pollinate the tomato flowers by hand, or have a few bees around for dinner (most modern tomato varieties can be pollinated using their own pollen, but they still need help with the actual pollination).

As mentioned in the last post, START SMALL. If you get too enthusiastic from the very start and have ten pots growing at once you may find you don’t have the time, energy or space to look after them all. So just try one or two to start with and take it from there, letting it gradually become part of your routine. Over time lookup information on the plants and try growing other small vegetables in pots. You’re not trying to live off the land yet, so be bold and experimental. Make mistakes, watch them die, get over it, and start again. Learn from this, take your time and enjoy yourself.

Admittedly, these babies are not going to see you through the winter, end world hunger or even win any prizes at your local flower and produce show. Does it matter? No. Why? Because at least you are doing, which is a lot more than some people can claim. Even if in one year of your busy life you only manage to grow one radish and a basil plant, it’s still better than just talking about it. The added advantage is that you can grow food in pots just about anywhere that receives adequate daylight, so you don’t even need a garden. If you have kids, you get to teach them something very valuable about food – a small lesson, but one that will hopefully stay with them. Unlike tending to a whole garden, it costs virtually nothing both in terms of time and money. So give it a try, grow a radish, it will take pride of place on your dinner plate.

In the next part we’ll finally start looking at the garden!

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