If you have even a small amount of outside space at home, then you are in the fortunate position of being able to grow your own and ‘dig for victory’. Before looking at what can be grown, maybe it’s best to start with the growth substrate first. Many people prepare their soil by digging in expensive bags of shop-bought compost to ensure that their soil has adequate nutrition to support the plants they plan to grow. This compost often contains large quantities of peat, which is full of nutrients to boost plant growth. Peat is a fantastic substrate for growing plants and for this reason is commonly used by amateur gardeners. However, there are adverse environmental effects to using it.
Peat in commercially bought compost is largely derived from peat bogs, many of which can be over 100 years old. These bog environments are very fragile and there are only 6000 hectares (6%) of peat bogs left in the UK in a natural condition. The harvesting of peat destroys the natural ecosystems implicated with the bogs and is also contributing adversely to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide. With this in mind, it seems sensible to try to conserve the peat bogs by making your own compost. This is incredibly easy and a fantastic way to get rid of many waste items (up to 30%) generated in a household.
The first step is to make/buy a compost bin. Plastic ones are readily available to buy, but as the plastic is not biodegradable, wooden ones are a great alternative. The bin just needs to be placed on a patch of bare soil and then you can add your compostable material. There are so many things that can go in a compost bin. Here, they’re broken down by their major constituents, that will be released into the compost.
Good sources of carbon for composting are:
- Straw and hay;
- Wood chip, ash and sawdust;
- Shredded paper (non-glossy), newspaper, cardboard, shrub cuttings and leaves.
Good household sources of nitrogen are:
- Coffee grounds and tea leaves;
- Fruit and vegetable scraps;
- Fowers and plant cuttings, grass cuttings and weeds;
- chicken manure (excellent accelerator but probably less of a household item!)
Eggshells can also be added to compost and degrade more quickly if crushed before addition. It’s also best to layer wet and dry material within the bin. However this is not always possible, so the material can always be forked over once every few weeks to allow oxygen in and increase degradation of the material. A good compost should have a higher ratio of carbon to nitrogen, so make sure you include plenty of carbon rich substrate.
One way of growing your own crop of food outside is to use raised beds. These are a brilliant way to grow as most vegetables and many soft fruits (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and currants) can be grown in them. They can also be easily constructed from spare pieces of wood or old railway sleepers.
There are many advantages to growing in raised beds. Soil drainage is improved due to the soil being raised above ground level. In turn this improves soil temperature. As the soil has better drainage, it tends to warm up more quickly. However, the efficient drainage can lead to drought issues in hot weather, so it is important to keep an eye on watering as the temperature increases.
Raised beds allow growth in a different soil type. The soil in your garden may not be ideal for growing fruit or veg but you can tailor the soil in raised beds to suit the crops you want to grow. Also, for gardeners with mobility issues, raised beds allow increased and easier access to the plants. The beds can be easily covered to protect young seedlings and ward off predators. Plants can be grown in blocks to encourage uniform growth of plants, with less weed growth, and fertiliser application is concentrated solely on the areas where the plants are and not wasted on walkways. Crop rotation is also easy to practice if you have several narrow beds.
Root vegetables (carrots, beetroot, radish), potatoes, tomatoes, onions and leafy greens (spinach, kale, lettuce) are the most commonly grown vegetables in raised beds, but don’t forget about plants such as parsnips, leeks, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli which will produce well into winter.
If you are lucky enough to have an area of land that can be made into a growing plot then, similarly to using raised beds, you can pretty much grow what you want. The added benefit of a bit more land is that you can add some fruit trees such as apple, pear and plum. Most garden centres and nurseries sell young trees at a reasonable price, which will bear fruit within a year or so.
Apple trees are ideal for the home garden as many varieties produce through the autumn, producing a steady supply of fruit. The fruit can also be easily stored over winter by wrapping in newspaper and storing in a cool place, such as a garage, shed or basement. Apples are a source of fibre, vitamin C and quercitin, a flavonoid with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
If you don’t have any outside space but would like to grow more of your own fruit and vegetables, it may be worth looking into getting an allotment. Most local authorities have these and you can apply online for one, where you will either be allocated a plot or put on a waiting list.
Okay, so not technically something you grow but it’s well worth considering rehoming a few ex-battery hens for a supply of fresh eggs. Not only will you be giving a hen that would otherwise be slaughtered a second chance at life, you will get delicious eggs for around 9 months of the year. As an added bonus you can add the eggshells and chicken manure to your compost heap. Eggs are well known to be a rich source of vitamins (D, B6, B12), selenium and zinc, iron and copper.