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How to grow your own food
Headline stories about inflation conceal the worst of the news rises. But ordinary shoppers know that staple food prices have been rising 10% year on year. We call it Food Shock.
In this major feature we help you deal with rising food prices. Take a look at the 14-part series in our self-sufficiency section – a month-by-month guide to growing your own food. Here is the first one.
If you want to grow some of the food you eat, but also want to minimize the hard work, then you need harvests that produce quickly, harvest repeatedly and require little of your time while they do it.
Mark Keenan spent four years researching the most cost-effective crops – the easiest to grow that would save you most money off your food bill. Here is how he saves up to $2000 per year from your food bill:

This is roughly what I’ve saved over the past four years by growing food. When starting my allotment four years ago, one of my key objectives was to record everything I grew each year, price it from the supermarket and then add up how much I had saved.
(NB: these prices are in Euros. One Euro is roughly 1.5 Dollars
Putting in an average of four hours a week, I worked out that I grow about €2,000 worth of fresh produce each year between the allotment, my garden (which has former flower beds, planters and a greenhouse devoted to food growing), and even in the house, where colourful food plants such as chillies have usurped houseplants.
Although we grew about €2,000 worth of food last year, what we saved on our annual grocery bill was about €1,200. That’s because we grew more than we needed, some of it perished before we could use it, we gave some away, we had annual costs of about €200 for rent, compost, petrol and seeds and we wouldn’t have bought the amount of fresh produce we grew had we not taken on the allotment.
I have grown 55 types of food plants, ranging from the humdrum, such as spuds and cabbage, to the more exotic, such as jalapeno peppers, aubergines, pumpkins and salsify. While many crops, such as peas, carrots and cabbage, are cheap to buy (we grow them for the superior quality and taste), others save us far more than you might expect.I took just over 2lb of blueberries this year — earning me between €50 and €100, depending on where you buy them.
So which crops will save you most on your food bill?
Salads €100
Lettuces and in particular the more exotic mixed-leaf salads cost about €2 for a sealed bag. Salads are among the most prolific crops — they also have a long growing season and there are hundreds of seeds in each packet.
We grew lollo rossa, icebergs, mustard leaves, rocket, salad-bowl lettuce and a range of others. It meant massive salads from April to October, if you pick a few leaves from each plant rather than cutting an entire head. Growing them in relays, sowing new lines every few weeks, means that when the older plants bolt, they keep coming.
We easily gave away as much as we ate. We probably picked nearly 15 shop-sized bags of mixed leaves through the year.
Calabrese €200
Calabrese, which we call broccoli, has been an incredible saver. A single large floret of calabrese sells for about €1.50 in the shops. My crop gives me between one and two small bin-liner sacks a year from a bed measuring about 8ft by 5ft. Blanched and frozen, it lasts for more than six months in the freezer.
The crop we gather and consume throughout the year would cost us between €100 and €200 in the shops.
Berries €300 Apart from the heavy-cropping blueberries (we have six bushes now), I have four mature blackcurrant bushes, four redcurrants, six or seven gooseberries, 30 or 40 strawberry plants, a cranberry, about 20 raspberry canes and some loganberries.
Berries are perfect with cereals, desserts, for making smoothies and for cooking (added to stuffing). They also freeze well, giving us a year-round supply.
Berries are hugely expensive to buy because of the labour involved in picking them, the difficulty in storing them (they can’t be piled up or they bruise). They’re also rich sources of vitamin C. Don’t believe Ribena when the company says it uses all of Ireland’s blackcurrant crop.
Chilli peppers €120
Chillies are incredible croppers once you get them through their tricky early months, so we’ve never managed to use an entire crop.
Despite the recent snow and plunging temperatures, I’ve still got a few soldiering on the patio. On the windowsill are two cayenne chillies, cut to the shape of a sloping bonsai, and they’re still flowering and cropping.
I find the best producers in Ireland are cayennes, a long narrow chilli, and jalapenos, the fiery triangular-shaped fruits. To store them, you simply leave them to dry out. They make such eye-catching houseplants with their delicate cream flowers and fire-enginered fruits, all they need is a sunlit windowsill.
Tomatoes €360
By growing six types of tomatoes this year, mostly outdoors on the patio with the remainder in the greenhouse, we took about 66lb of tomatoes in all. Half of these were cherry tomatoes which could be frozen.
While we ate fresh tomatoes from August until December (there’s still a few hanging on in the garden), most of them were skinned, pulped and frozen in ziplock bags to keep us in pasta sauce and stews for the year. Tomatoes usually cost about €12 for 2lb.
Not only are tomatoes great croppers, but they also don’t take up much room for the amount of food they generate, because they can be trained upwards against a wall. Some of our tomato plants reached 7ft. One packet contains more than 200 tomato seeds. That’s value that is hard to beat.
Fresh herbs €150
Herbs are a no-brainer. For most of the year we are completely self-sufficient in sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, spearmint, chives, fennel, dill and, for four to six months, we have our own basil, coriander and parsley. They’re easy to grow, particularly in containers. To keep a household in fresh herbs costs about €4 per week.
Potatoes €160
We’d normally spend a fiver a week on sp me we spuds, but we have our own from summer until February, depending on how well they last.
That’s already a total of €1,390. And there are plenty more crops that don’t save quite so much, but taken together, still contribute heavily to our savings.
Celeriac €80
A celeriac head costs €2 at Dunnes. We’ve got 40 of them coming on at the allotment — that’s €80 — and we’ll eat every last one of them, sliced, honeyed, herbed up, splashed with olive oil and roasted.
Onions €52 We’d spend €2 a week on onions, but we’re self-sufficient from September to February, so that’s about €52.
Think about it. These savings are the equivalent of a year’s supply of heating oil for an average home and your family will be eating the best food you can get.
So get out your spade out this spring and dig back every penny they take off you.
And here are a few more ideas.
Kai Lan
Kai lan is an unusual vegetable –but we will soon all be used to it. With the same effort as it takes to grow Broccoli, you’ll have many more meals from your kai lan plant. Steamed or stir-fried, you don’t have the long wait to harvest as you do with asparagus or broccoli.
The green spears grow about 30in, turning leafy and developing flower heads within two months or so. Every part is edible, even the flowers. Once a root system has established you can slice off whatever parts take your fancy, leaving stumps of 3in or so to grow back. Month after month you can cut off delicious harvests, and although it will die down in the cold, kai lan survives most winters and will carry on producing for years.
Borlotti Beans
Borlotti beans clamber over anything you grow them against.
The beans are nutty and creamy and you get three chances to enjoy them: fresh from the pod in the height of summer they make a fabulous hummus, pasta sauce or the centrepiece of summer soups such as ribollita; any you don’t use can be dried and added to winter soups and stews; and any that you haven’t eaten by next spring can be sown to give you next year’s crop.
Any of the peas and beans family will be similarly productive – the more you pick, the more they’ll produce – so each seed will give you many meals.
Squash
Square metre for square metre, Courgettes are highly productive. This may be largely down to another compulsive disorder afflicting some gardeners: they open a packet of seeds and they have to sow them all. When the dozen or so seeds germinate, we plant them out and then blame the courgette when we are overloaded with produce.
Sow just five seeds for a family of four: assume one won’t germinate, one is taken by the slugs and you’ll have three plants to harvest from.
The secret to getting the best from courgettes is to pick them small and flavoursome – let the fruit grow larger than a cigar and not only does the flavour decline but your plants become less productive.
Even if you can’t eat them when they’re cigar-sized, pick them anyway and compost them – focus on keeping the plant perfectly productive rather than guiltily trying to devour each fruit it produces.
Three Sisters planting
If you fancy being more adventurous, with the prospect of even easier rewards, you can combine borlottis and courgettes with sweetcorn. In perhaps the most satisfying example of companion planting, this threesome works in harmony when sown together.
The sweetcorn provides the scaffold for the bean to clamber through in its search for light and heat, while the courgette leaves spread below, cooling the roots of the other two and helping retain soil moisture.
The bean does as all legumes do – takes nitrogen from the air and makes it available in the soil via nodules in its roots. It uses some of this nutrient to feed itself, leaving any excess for the sweetcorn and courgette, which grow stronger as a result. Placing the three together allows each to thrive.
This American Indian interplanting is known as the Three Sisters, and it works equally well with squash, melons or cucumbers instead of courgettes and any pea or bean in place of the borlottis.
A twist on this is the crafty interplanting of marigolds between rows to deter white fly, and nasturtiums placed as a sacrificial plant near your brassicas: cabbage white caterpillars much prefer them. The flowers of each look great in salads, too.
Spice things up
Chillies can be exceptionally tasty grown on a windowsill, but they are very particular, especially in the early stages.
You can sidestep a lot of grief by ordering seedlings from a specialist grower and potting them up when they are delivered in May.
‘Fairy Lights’, ‘Rooster Spur’, ‘Coffee Bean’ and ‘Turtle Claw’ are fantastic varieties for growing in this way, each throwing out many chillies through the second half of summer and beyond.
If all this still sounds tiring, you can make things even easier by ordering an instant vegetable garden delivered as seedlings. Rocket Gardens will supply a complete veg patch in a box, or try Organic Plants (see box above), where you can take a more pickand- mix approach. The salad mixes are particularly useful.
Focusing on the generous easy winners means you get plenty of reward for your time and money and leaves your evenings and weekends free for whatever else takes your fancy.
Idler’s timetable
Now
Order chilli seedlings from www.seaspringseeds.co.uk
Order seedlings from Rocket Gardens (www.rocketgardens.co.uk) and/or Organic Plants (www.organicplants.co.uk).
March
Start kai lan in modules or Jiffy 7s, or for an easier life, sow direct, from the beginning of March or until September.
Sow borlotti beans, peas and French beans (any time between now and midsummer) in root trainers or card toilet roll inners to give the roots plenty of room to stretch out as they develop. And/or sow direct.
Sow cut-and-come-again salad leaves direct and/or plant out seedlings.
April
Sow and/or plant out a second patch of cut-and-comeagain leaves so that one is always productive while the other is recovering.
Sow sweetcorn and courgettes into small pots on your windowsill.
Plant out kai lan.
Once the borlotti roots fill the trainer or toilet roll and the top growth has exceeded 6in or so, plant them in the garden.
May
Take delivery of chilli seedings and pot them up immediately to grow on your sunniest windowsill or patio.
Plant out sweetcorn when seedlings are 3in tall.
Harvest cut-and-come-again leaves and kai lan.
June
Harvest cut-and-come-again leaves, kai lan and courgette flowers.
July
Harvest cut-and-come-again leaves, kai lan, courgettes and (depending on variety) the first chillies and sweetcorn.
Sow/plant more cut-and-come- again leaves.
Reader offers
Chinese broccoli and Three Sister planting collection
This specially selected seed collection includes six varieties: one packet each of kai lan (Chinese broccoli), borlotti bean, courgette ‘Firenze’, sweetcorn ‘Swift’, lettuce leaves mixed and salad bowl (loose-leaf) mix. The collection costs just £8.95, saving you over £2.
Chillies
Grow chilli peppers the easy way with plug plants. Supplied direct from the nursery ready to pot up, this collection is made up of five varieties in a range of shapes, sizes and heats. Buy five plants for just £8.95 or save £5 when you buy 10 plants (two of each variety) for £12.90. Delivery from late April.

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4 Responses to “Food shock – and how to cope with it”

  1. Ivlia Vespasia

    Great article, the only thing I might add is to read the book ‘The Square Foot Gardener’. I read it a few years ago and have been growing food using those principles ever since, easy, quick and saves on watering and weeding. Due to the damp summers we’ve had in Ireland recently I made my beds off the ground (and wrapped copper – old emersion tank – around the legs to keeps slugs/snails off) to assist in drainage. It also saves on backache. I support a family of 4 on vegetables on 2 beds 16’x4′. I’m adding in a couple more this year for soft fruit. I use planks that are 16’x9”x1”, makes for the ideal size. Using 2”x2” for the legs is best, and I’m adding on 1”x.5” on the corners with the aim of adding bubble-wrap to turn the beds into mini greenhouses so I can try growing more plants that need warmer conditions.

    Reply
  2. wayne

    I bought a cold frame from Seeds of Change 2 years ago, I love it! A fall planting of spinach will survive these miserable Nebraska winters and allows for fresh greens in late March and through April, meanwhile an early spring sowing of lettuce means salads by mid-April.
    Buy/make yourselves a cold frame guys, you won’t be sorry…

    Reply
  3. Kelley

    Sounds great – all for four hours per week! Here on Long Island food prices have risen over 150% percent on some items (apple juice, beef). We’ve been stocking up when our favorites go on sale and eating seasonally, but we’re still feeling the pinch. Incredibly, it’s sometimes more economical to eat out than to cook, but then you don’t know the quality of what you’re getting. Thanks for the great article.

    Reply

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