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.