“We take our groceries for granted, but they’re a big part of every day for us all and it’s easy to forget that what we eat impacts the world in countless ways.”
We are delighted to introduce this fascinating guest blog this week from Naomi Distill, the inspiration behind Incredible Edible St Albans, a project of Food Smiles St Albans – and the winners of Environmental Champions in the St Albans Mayor’s Pride Awards 2019.
In our modern, global world our food systems play into almost every big issue on earth;
air and water pollution, soil depletion and loss, hunger and poverty, climate change, economy, habitat loss and species extinction, animal cruelty and human slavery, rubbish and landfill, public health and antibiotic resistance.
But as author and activist Michael Pollan famously says:
“The wonderful thing about food is you get three votes a day. Every one of them has the potential to change the world.”
The food with the smallest environmental impact is that which grows easily on the land where you live. That way your food has grown in harmony with its environment without the need for extra inputs, it supports local people and economy, and it doesn’t need to travel, nor be wrapped, gassed and refrigerated for travel. And there’s no better way to reduce those food miles and to know that your food is naturally grown than to grow some of it yourself.
Healthy food without chemicals and food for the soul
Growing even a little of your own food has countless benefits. Not only do you get healthy food grown without chemicals, without a big carbon footprint and without a plastic wrapper. It is more nutritious and often more delicious, because it’s perfectly fresh and because the soils in biodiverse home gardens and allotments tend to be much more nutrient-rich than tired farm soils bearing monocultures. It’s cheap, easy to do and extemely rewarding.
You get to reconnect with natural cycles and processes that are all but forgotten in modern life..
..and you get to spend time outdoors, in contact with the earth, hearing the sounds and witnessing the intricacies of nature and breathing fresh air.
You get a little exercise too, and it’s a perfect way to connect with other like-minded people if you decide to take on an allotment or join a community growing scheme.
But I don’t know how
A lot of people seem afraid to try growing food because they feel they don’t know how, but there really is nothing simpler than putting a few seeds in some compost, keeping it moist and seeing what happens, and you have little to lose!
Plants WANT to grow – they WANT to succeed and fruit and prosper –
..so many will take care of themselves if you just provide for their basic needs, and the back of the seed pack usually has a few useful tips too (ALWAYS to be taken as guidelines, not gospel!) and there are many books and websites available to guide you along the way. As with learning to cook, you won’t get everything right all the time, but you’ll learn as you go along and improve each and every time you try!
Where to begin
Identify where you’re going to grow..
..choosing an area with as much direct sunshine and natural light as possible.
Next, choose your veg. A great way to do this is to first think of the vegetables you already eat most at home – though if you subsist on aubergines, sweet potatoes and chickpeas some compromise might be a good idea; some crops are easy while others have trickier needs, so it’s a good idea to start with the simplest or else grow a mix!
The absolute easiest crops to grow in our climate are potatoes, French beans, broad beans, Swiss chard, courgettes, tomatoes, beetroots, lettuces and salad leaves.
Short on space
Though you’d get more from a garden patch, many useful crops can be grown in pots on your patio, front drive or even a balcony, and many people grow significant amounts of food this way. Focus on crops that give a continuous harvest for a period, such as tomatoes, beans, and salad greens, and be sure to water (and feed) well as pots often dry out faster than the earth.
Short on time?
Perennial crops save loads of time and last year-round or come back each spring, with no need for digging the soil, sowing, transplanting and so on each year. Fruit bushes, strawberries, rhubarb and woody herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano etc.) are all reliable low-maintenance perennials..
..but also consider searching out perennial greens such as Caucasian vining spinach, perennial kale, sea beet, wild rocket, sorrel and more, as well as reliable self-seeders such as purslane, winter purslane and land cress.
Once planted, your food plot will need little care other than occasional weeding and thinning, and annual pruning of fruit bushes.
Short on sunshine
Leafy crops are a good choice for shady plots; try lettuces, rocket, cabbage, kale, spring onions, spinach and chard.
If your plot gets sunlight for half the day, most root crops will be okay too; potatoes, carrots and beetroots are all well worth a try, and so are peas and broad beans.
What are you waiting for?
Now is the perfect time to start planning, whether you’d like to rent an allotment, revamp the garden or just start a single pot on your patio. Grow a little something this year and see how rewarding, healthy and delicious it can be!
Or if you’re still not ready to go it alone, consider joining a community growing group such as FoodSmiles St Albans, where members work together to grow food and learn growing skills –
or join us at one of our Incredible Edible gardens where you can see how we do it and grill us with your gardening questions!
Tips for low-carbon growing:
- Buy only peat-free compost (or make your own, but clean and sterile commercial compost will give you a higher success rate when seed-sowing).
- Grow from organic seeds or seeds that you (or a friend) have saved. Organic seeds come from strains of plants that haven’t had to rely on chemical fertilisers or pesticides, so their offspring shouldn’t have to rely on them either.
- Sow at the correct time, when light levels and temperatures are adequate for what you’re trying to grow – this avoids the need for growlights or heated propagators. Often a seed packet will tell you the very earliest time you could possibly get away with sowing a seed, but aim a bit later to give it the best chance. On a similar note, do you best to grow plants which are suitable for your location; plants with less-than-desirable growing conditions often need more input to keep them healthy. Consider growing more of the things you grow well, and swapping some with a friend who succeeds with different crops.
- Avoid chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which have a high carbon footprint and harm the soil, the insect life and possibly you! Most pest problems on a small scale can be controlled by hand (removal or squishing!), with a mild home-made soap spray, or by using insect-proof mesh to keep insects off.
- Install a water butt to harvest rainwater for your garden.
- Don’t be tempted by all the fancy equipment that’s available! Buy only what you need, or share tools with a friend, and buy quality that will last. And try not to buy plastic pots – many gardeners will have a surplus they’re happy to share with you, or you can easily find inspiration online for repurposing other containers for food-growing.
Naomi Distill, FoodSmiles St Albans 2019 (All photos from Naomi Distill).
If you are intrigued and want to find out more – FoodSmiles St Albans are taking part in SustFest19 with at least three events during the festival.
Sat 11 May: FoodSmiles Open Day, and site tour – with cake! Hammonds End Farm site
Sun 12 May: Incredible Edible, Civic Centre St Albans
Sat 25th May: Incredible Edible Russell AVe, St Albans
Also see Open Food Gardens 2019 programme