Without wanting to sound like your gran, the simple shift from shop-bought to homegrown fruit, veg and herbs can make a difference to your health, your pocket, your cooking and Mother Nature.
From veg patch to plate in minutes, there are no food miles involved, which is great for the environment and means you aren’t paying towards transport costs. It also means you get the full-whack of nutrients, with no pesticides to worry about.
Plus, there’s just something so ‘Earth Mother’ about it. “There is nothing like going out of your back door or onto your balcony to cut fresh herbs for your cooking,” says Kerstin Rodgers, the ‘cooking half’ of grow your own gurus The Secret Garden Club.
“Gone are the days when we keep musty dried parsley in outdated spice racks. Plus, garden-grown fruit, vegetables and herbs lend vibrancy, colour and flavour to your cooking.”
But I live in a flat…
“Don’t assume you have to have a garden. Most veg and lots of fruit too will grow in a pot, on a balcony, or even on a windowsill if necessary,” explains SGC’s green-fingered half, Christina Erskine.
“If you have to grow in pots, be creative: old oil drums, veg crates from your local greengrocer, old chimney pots … lots of containers can be recycled to grow vegetables. The important thing to remember is to punch or drill holes in the bottom so that excess water can drain out and they don’t get waterlogged.”
Deputy chair and granddaughter to the founder of Squire’s Garden Centre, Sarah Squire, agrees: “Many vegetables can be grown in pots, including potatoes – you will need a deep container for these – tomatoes, courgettes and beans. Salad crops and herbs are ideal in a window box.”
Just make sure you put the pots in a sunny spot and, if they are outside on the balcony, make sure they are out of the wind. “Better to have a spot that gets the sun only part of the day so long as it’s out of the wind,” Erskine advises. “Put up a windbreak of some kind if necessary.”
Growing in pots does mean you won’t be able to cultivate as much of a variety, but it is easily the most convenient option – the concept of digging up fresh veg for your dinner suddenly loses its appeal if you have a muddy half-mile trudge to your allotment.
You can try to get an allotment, but waiting lists can be very long – in most cases more than a year. To register, you’ll need to contact your local council or the council of the borough the allotment you have your eye on is governed by (find your nearest available block by typing in your postcode at london.gov.uk/allotment/map). If you are successful, you can expect to pay around £100 a year and you will need to sign a tenancy agreement for the site.
The great advantage of renting an allotment is you can put some real time into your cultivation. “While most vegetables are grown on an annual basis, you might also like to consider a bed for your permanent planting,” Squire says. “Raspberries, currants, blueberries, gooseberries and so on are a long-term project. Rhubarb and asparagus also need a permanent spot and some patience.”
A green-fingered duo known as Mobile Gardeners have created community gardens and “pocket parks” around the Elephant and Castle area. “We have tenants who have mini-allotments,” co-founder Richard Reynolds tells us. “They are free tenancies and people can come and go from the park as they please to tend to their veg, fruit and their ornamental plants.”
Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anything like this in London out of the Elephant and Castle area, but you could try to start your own. Ask your council who owns any of the unused plots in your area and see if they’d be happy for you to use it as a community garden. Reynolds tells us that Australian-owned developer Lend Lease encourages Mobile Gardeners to use their land.
You could also try asking your building manager if they would be happy to let you make use of a grassy patch in the grounds. It will add an attractive element to the building and you can see if other residents want to join in.
If you live in a house with a garden, but it belongs to your neighbours, ask them if they would mind you using it – you can schedule in a weekly slot to tend to your patch. We’re sure they would be more than happy to let you do this in return for a few free veggies.
“My parents had an allotment so I’ve grown up growing my own fruit and veg. Lettuce is great – it’s quite easy and there’s never any mouldy lettuce in my fridge because I just grab it as I want it.”
“Even though I have a garden, I prefer to use pots – it keeps things under control. My tip: add tomato feed to your strawberry plant’s soil and they’ll be extra red and juicy.”
“I’m useless with remembering to do stuff, so a veg patch would never get the care and attention it needs. It would be lucky to last a week!”
If you don’t know your potato shoot from your tomato plant, try one of these workshops:
• Learn from experts without leaving the house with this online horticultural school. my-garden-school.com
• Join Mobile Gardeners for one of their regular ‘skill up’ events. mobilegardeners.org/events
• The Secret Garden Club holds a variety of workshops followed by a supper and cocktail session centred around the same theme.
Photos: Thinkstock; Getty