Grow your own vegan food

by Annette White
March 2009

If you’ve never tried to grow some of your own food, there has never been a better time to start. The sun is shining, green shoots are sprouting and the outdoors looks inviting. Some people probably find the thought a bit daunting and wonder where to start and what is possible. It’s not helped by the fact that there are quite a few myths about growing veg. – here are a few:

You need lots of space and a large garden
Not true. You don’t even need a garden – some salad crops can be grown in a window box, as can herbs, tomatoes, dwarf beans, radishes, and spring onions. If you have a sunny patio, this is an ideal place to grow outdoor tomatoes, either in pots, tubs, old buckets or grow-bags, and there is even a variety suitable for hanging-baskets. (Tomatoes were originally grown as ornamental plants rather than food.) The main problem with tomatoes in this country is the ripening, but even this need not be a problem. Pick them in the early Autumn when they are large enough but still green, wrap them in brown paper and pop them in the airing cupboard or on a sunny windowsill, and they should ripen in a few days.
If you have a bit more space, there are small greenhouses to suit all sizes of gardens and you can grow a wider variety of crops without any heating. If you have a conservatory, then you can grow food there. I have successfully grown chillis, cucumbers and aubergines as well as tomatoes in an unheated greenhouse. In the case of tomatoes, you probably won’t find it any cheaper to grow than to buy them, by the time you’ve bought the plants, the pots and the compost, but they will taste a lot nicer than bought ones, and will be better for the environment and also vegan. You will also need to feed tomatoes weekly once the fruits have started to form. I am fortunate to have a third of an acre for growing veg., but crops like runner beans can be grown up a fence and red cabbages look lovely mixed in with flowers in borders.

It is hard work
It need not be, but there are some crops which do require work. Potatoes, for example, have to be ‘earthed up’ regularly to stop the tops of the tubers going green, which makes them inedible. But the taste of freshly-dug new potatoes with olive oil and mint makes it all worthwhile! With all outdoor veg. you will need to keep any weeds under control, and you can do this by hoeing regularly, weeding, or under-planting with other plants. But there is no need to be fanatical about removing every weed in sight. Harvesting your crop could probably be considered quite hard work, although I consider it a pleasure. Gardening is better exercise than going to the gym and a lot more rewarding! In the summer I like to pick my raspberries and other soft fruit every day – the more you pick the more you get. This more or less guarantees a second crop at the end of the summer – well worth the effort. Picking soft fruit in the evening with bats flitting about and the moon rising is quite atmospheric, a relaxing end to the day. It doesn’t have to be a chore. Don’t forget watering – several times a day if you have a greenhouse. Use rainwater you’ve collected in a water butt; the plants love it – they know the difference between rainwater and tap water, and it is also better to recycle water.

It’s no cheaper than buying veg. in the shops
This is another half-truth. Some crops such as carrots, onions, potatoes and tomatoes are relatively cheap to buy and, unless you eat a lot of them, it might not be cheaper to grow your own. However, when it comes to salad crops, the savings are greater. The ‘cut and come again’ varieties are best, where you just remove the leaves and leave the root in the soil. Similarly, the ‘leaf beet’ type of spinach where you just pick the leaves is very useful and I would recommend these to people who live in the dry Colchester area. The savings are really made when you start growing perennial vegetables, trees and soft fruit. Perennial vegetables are plants that are left in the ground all the time rather than sown each year. Top of these is asparagus, which is hugely expensive to buy but so easy to grow. It takes a couple of years to get established, but then all you have to do is cut and steam and eat it. Rhubarb is another ‘perennial’, and also globe artichokes, which are harder to eat than to grow and which I have known to fight the weeds and win! You will need bird protection for soft fruit unless your garden is inhabited by cats.
Raspberry and blackberry (thornless) plants are relatively expensive to buy, but they will probably have paid for themselves by the second or third year. If you have space to build yourself a fruit cage, then you can grow these and strawberries in the same area. Gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants are all easy to grow and produce big crops which, like all soft fruit, freeze easily. You have only to look at the price of these items in the shops (if you can find them) to see how much money you are saving, as well as helping to save the planet. Fruit trees take a few years to get established and do need a bit of space, and they need pruning from time to time. There are now dwarf varieties of most trees that are designed for small gardens. Don’t forget nut trees – even if you don’t eat the nuts, the wildlife will. Apple trees are good, as are fig trees.

You get problems with insects and other pests
Inevitably you will, but don’t just attack them with chemicals. Slugs and snails are eaten by birds, hedgehogs, frogs, etc, so encourage these in your garden. Find a crop that fits in with your garden’s ecosystem.

You get too much of one thing which you can’t eat
It does happen. It sounds obvious, but don’t even think about growing something that you never eat. Think about the veg. that you buy each week and, if possible, try and grow those (unless you live on a diet of really exotic fruit and veg.!) If you do get too much of one thing in a short time – runner beans are a good example – then how about swopping them with a neighbour, or just giving them away? – or try selling your surplus. If you have a freezer, most veg. will freeze, or you can make preserves, or dry or bottle your surplus produce – imagine eating raspberries from your summer garden on Christmas day.

There’s a lot more to be written on this subject – and your ideas, info., problems, queries, etc are welcome.

To learn more about vegan organic food-growing, go to:
the Vegan Organic Network (VON) web-site at http://www.veganorganic.net/ and ‘Windowsill gardening’ at http://www.veganorganic.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=43&Itemid=65
The Vegan Society web-site also has a gardening page, at http://www.vegansociety.com/people/lifestyle/home_and_garden/veganic_gardening.php
The Royal Horticultural Society is running a grow your own campaign and you can read more and sign up for the free newsletter at http://www.rhs.org.uk/news/growyourown.asp

There are magazines and books and many more web-sites with information on growing your own food.

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