With shortages of some fresh produce in the news, and food prices rising generally, it might be a good time to consider growing your own vegetables at home.
Growing your own food can save you money. It can also cut your carbon footprint, as less energy, fuel and packaging are used to get the food to your plate.
You don’t need masses of space either. If you have a garden, you could try the ‘square foot’ gardening method, and grow 16 different crops in a 1.2 metre square (see www.little greenspace.org.uk/ features/square-foot-garden.html). And many crops can be grown in containers on a patio or balcony, or in a window box. You can even grow some food in hanging baskets, or on a sunny windowsill.
Tomatoes have been in short supply recently. They are cheap and easy to grow, though – and you don’t need any specialist equipment or a lot of space.
There are two types of tomato plants: cordon (indeterminate) and bush (determinate). If you’re a beginner, then look out for bush tomato seeds. These grow well in containers and, unlike cordon varieties, don’t need to be tied onto supports or have side-shoots removed – just sow, water and grow!
Bush tomato varieties include Lizzano, Red Alert and Tumbling Tom. These are all small, cherry-type tomatoes, which ripen sooner than larger varieties.
Sow tomato seeds in March or April, putting two or three seeds into a small pot of compost. They like warmth, so keep the pots on a sunny windowsill and water little and often. As they grow, pull out the weaker seedlings to leave one strong plant in each pot.
As the plants get bigger, pot them up into slightly larger containers. You can move them into a frost-free greenhouse, if you have one. Once all risk of frost has passed (usually around the end of May), tomatoes can be planted into their final positions, in growbags, large containers, or in the ground. Tumbling varieties can also be grown in hanging baskets.
Watch out for aphids and whitefly. These sap-sucking pests can damage your plants. To deter them, grow some mint or coriander nearby. Also try to attract ladybirds to your garden – a single ladybird can munch its way through around 5,000 aphids in its lifetime. Ladybirds love nectar-rich flowers such as fennel, dill and calendula – so growing some of these should entice them.
Ladybirds also need places to shelter during cold weather, and will hunker down in cracks and crevices, leaf litter and hollow stems. For this reason, it's best to wait until they emerge from hibernation – usually in April – before you tidy up the garden by raking leaves and cutting down dead plants.
Three more easy crops to grow
Fresh salad is one of the biggest wins when it comes to saving money by growing your own. For the price of just one bag of salad leaves, you can buy a pack of seeds that should give you platefuls of salad all summer.
There are all sorts of salad seed mixes available. Salad can be grown in the ground or in containers. You could also have small pots of salad growing on a sunny windowsill.
Sprinkle seeds into compost or finely raked soil, and cover lightly with compost. If growing outside, this can be done as soon as the soil is warm enough, in late March or early April. Once the seedlings have emerged, water during dry spells.
Salad leaves grow quickly – some varieties can be ready in just a few weeks – and can be harvested as soon as they’re big enough to eat. It’s best to sow a small quantity of seeds every fortnight or so, to ensure a continual supply of leaves and avoid gluts.
Slugs love salads, so to deter them try scattering crushed eggshells, bran or oats around your plants – these form a physical barrier that slugs find hard to cross. Don’t use toxic slug pellets, as these can cause harmful chemicals to get into the food chain, affecting the mammals and birds that eat slugs.
Fresh broad beans are hard to find in supermarkets, but growing your own is really easy. You don’t need masses of space, either – Sutton is a dwarf variety that’s ideal for growing in pots.
Sow the large bean seeds in March, pushing each individual seed into a small pot or module filled with compost.
No plant pots? You can also arrange cardboard loo roll tubes in a seed tray, and fill these with compost. Or, if you have space, broad beans can be sown direct into the ground – as long as the soil isn’t too cold or waterlogged.
Broad beans are quite hardy and can be planted out as soon as the seedlings are large enough to handle. The pods begin to form in May, and you can start to harvest the beans in June.
Broad beans are a good source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. They are delicious served lightly steamed and tossed with butter and mint. Or try frying some garlic and red onion in a little olive oil, throw in some par-boiled, diced potatoes and some blanched broad beans, then add cubed Halloumi and a handful of fresh herbs – dill is good.
Pea seeds are cheap to buy – about a pound a packet – and they grow very quickly, producing plants that are ready to eat in around three weeks. This is another vegetable you can grow on a windowsill.
To grow pea shoots, fill pots or trays with compost. You can reuse the plastic punnets that strawberries and raspberries come in – these are ideal as they have holes in the base that will prevent your seeds from becoming waterlogged.
Use your finger to poke holes, about 2cm apart, in the compost, and pop a seed into each hole. Cover the seeds with more compost, water well, and place somewhere sunny.
When the plants are about 10cm tall they are ready to eat. Snip off the shoots just above the bottom set of leaves, and another shoot should grow.
Pea shoots are packed with vitamin C – essential for a healthy immune system. They have a delicate, pea-like flavour and a crisp, juicy texture, and are delicious in salads.