Eco homes: No London garden is too small to grow your own

[from Daily Telegraph]

Eco homes: No London garden is too small to grow your own

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 15/05/2008

With rising costs, anxieties about food miles and pesticides, it’s time to GIY (Grow It Yourself). Sarah Lonsdale digs up the story

With soaring food prices pushing the average family’s food bills up £750 in a year, there’s never been a better time to grow your own fruit, vegetables and herbs. It will not only save money, but will also save on the carbon emissions released in growing, packaging and transporting supermarket produce as well as revolutionisng the taste and nutrition content of your food. And you don’t have to have a three-acre garden to make a difference.

Norman Lester
Rake’s progress: Norman Lester has cultivated his London garden all his life

Norman Lester’s 40ft-long garden is fairly small, even by London garden standards, yet his 30 potato plants, each producing at least 2kg of potatoes, will alone save him around £120 this year.

At 80 years old, Norman would be the first to admit that he is not as fit as he once was. Yet every year without fail he fills the garden of his Finsbury Park home, where he has lived since 1939, with fruit and vegetables. From early summer to late autumn, he is virtually self- sufficient. In fact he has to give away many of the apples his four old English trees produce, thriving as they do in the fertile clay soil of north London. “I wish I could say the same for my carrots, they’re a bit of a disappointment,” he adds ruefully.

Growing his own is nothing new to Norman. As a boy during the Second World War, he helped out on his family’s allotment in Finsbury Park, and looked after the chickens and rabbits that roamed the back garden of their late Victorian terrace. “People who have never grown their own vegetables think that it is difficult or mysterious,” he says. “But once you’ve got the seeds in the ground, as long as you remember to water them, there’s nothing to worry about.”

“If you want lettuce for your summer salads, it’s much easier, and tastier, to grow your own,” says Martin Harvey, managing director of seed company Marshalls. “It can cost you up to £1.99 for a bag of salad leaves or rocket at a supermarket, whereas you can grow several varieties of lettuce in container pots, the type that will come back again and again after you cut it, and keep you in salad all summer long.”

He says it’s no surprise that sales of vegetable seeds grew by 31 per cent last year, and that sales this year are set to match or overtake that figure. “It’s not just about cost, it’s about nutrition – parents, in particular, are worried about what they’re feeding their children. “

Sue Haigh feeds her bed and breakfast guests home-grown produce from her 100ft garden in Crystal Palace, south London, although self-sufficiency still eludes her – partly because a greedy urban fox made off with Molly and Nora, the two chickens who provided the eggs for breakfast.

Sue says: “One thing I’ve learned is how to create a ‘lasagne garden’ – it works particularly well in a small space.” The “lasagne” is layers of newspaper, compost and leaves in a raised bed, which obviates the need for digging. “The damp newspaper brings the worms up and really helps improve the soil,” says Sue, who grows red onions, Swiss chard, peas and lettuce.

Sue’s biggest problem is the army of invertebrates lurking in the undergrowth waiting to feast on the tender green leaves. “The eco-friendly slug pellets were so friendly that they were happily devoured by the birds and the squirrels – with no ill effect. The best method is beer in shallow dishes, but you’ve got to be quick. The beer doesn’t kill them, just sends them to sleep, and you have to dispose of them before they wake up and go at your lettuce harder than ever.”

The most economical way of growing your own is from seed, says Guy Barter, head of horticultural advice at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

Seeds cost from 80p for a packet that will give you around 15 plants, he says. “But they do require a little more care and attention. Don’t be disheartened if your first crop isn’t as bountiful as you’d hoped – just keep trying and remember to follow the instructions on the packet.

He adds: “There are some vegetables that thrive in containers on a windowsill or patio; these are much less likely to be attacked by a pest or disease. Or you can grow potatoes in an old dustbin -or even carrots in Wellington boots.”


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