Food for free

By Dene Marland, Education & Community Project Officer

Hello and welcome to the first blog (hopefully of many) about the art of food growing in the wonderful British climate. As everyone is well aware, we in Britain have a delightful climate that consists of rain, frost and even more rain, with sometimes even the sun making a special guest appearance.

This year was no exception, with the frost running into April, which is a right royal pain in the bottom if you’re a gardener without a greenhouse or poly tunnel. But don’t fear if this is the case as there are a few easy/nifty tricks to ensure your seeds and saplings will survive the harshest of British Springs.

Getting started

Food harvest at a local schoolWhen I first approached the prospect of growing my own food, I will not lie, I was terrified. My only experiences had been looking after plants whilst my parents were away on holiday, and let’s just say, the plants didn’t welcome them home with open leaves – eek! But from this I have gone on to successfully deliver a series of growing projects within schools and communities, proving that it really isn’t that difficult.

Through experience, I can hand on my heart tell you, the most important thing you can do when deciding to grow your own food is preparation. If you’re short of space, you can grow food in pretty much anything, from old boots and suitcases, to larger items such as old tyres and bins (remember to create holes for drainage otherwise your seeds might take a boat ride around the garden). Click here for some nifty growing space ideas.

Another important thing is ensuring you have the right compost for the job. I have found B&Q VERVE Sowing & Cutting Compost to be excellent – a light compost that is ideal for sowing seeds and gaining instant results. Though a useful site to compare other gardeners choices is www.which.co.uk

Finally you should also decide on the seeds you want to grow as this will dictate the layout of your growing area, and when and where they need to be planted. A general rule of thumb is there are around 8 vegetable growing families (families get on with each other and grow) – find out more about growing families here.

Spring into action

Ok let’s get to it, what can we do with the weather we have been gifted this year? The answer is loads, let’s start with simple windowsill herb gardens. You don’t have to be green fingered to create one of these. All you need is a tray, some drainage for the bottom, a scoop full of compost, and a mixture of your favourite herbs for flavouring tasty recipes. See this little guide – windowsill herb gardens are easy to do, take little care, and will continually provide all year round. Just don’t let them go to seed.

Start planting your seeds, most seeds should have been planted by now, but we can be forgiven for not doing due to the terrible weather. Why not start planting some beans, peas, lettuces, cabbages and potatoes. All very easy to grow and should be ready to harvest by late July accounting for the late spring. A great site for cheap good quality seeds is www.seedparade.co.uk

A useful tip for planting seeds if you don’t have a greenhouse is to get a 2 litre fizzy pop bottle, cut the bottom off about 4 inches up. Prick some holes in for drainage, and you have your own plant pot with its very own propagator (traps heat in and encourages seed growth, much like a greenhouse). Keep these on a windowsill for maximum light, and watch your seeds sprout up in no time at all.

Further to this, always buy in bulk, this gets thrown around a lot, but it really does bring the costs down.

Harvest time

When it comes to harvesting our foods, it’s always best to let some of the plants go to seed. This will allow you the opportunity to gather seeds and dry them out for next year, meaning it won’t cost you a penny for seed purchase next year.

Also only take what you need, as food begins to decompose from the moment you pick it, losing flavour and structure.

Get cooking

When it comes to cooking your food, be adventurous. You may have decided to grow foods that you would have never thought of trying before. But I guarantee that the food you have grown will taste so much better than mass produced foods.

It is important to pick the foods when they are at their best/peak. Most seed packets will give a guide on how long it takes, but weather can influence this. When you think they are ready take a sample and try before you commit to harvesting everything in your garden.

A great website for tasty recipes is www.bbc.co.uk/food – I have used this many a time to pretend I know how to cook for my girlfriend. Works every time!

I hope this blog has been of some use, best of luck, Dene.

Groundwork Oldham & Rochdale is currently helping local residents establish two community food growing areas – Fullwood Community Garden in East Oldham and Q Gardens in Kirkholt, Rochdale. If you would like to find out more about food growing email dene.marland@groundwork.org.uk to find out when sessions are running at these two gardens.

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