With Charles Dowding
How do you judge if you are getting good value by growing your own veg? Charles offers some thoughts
Iimagine you have asked yourself how worthwhile is the time we spend growing vegetables? They need a fair amount of time, and in monetary terms it sometimes looks a poor result.
However, using some figures from my garden, I suggest ways to increase the value of output, as well as looking at different ways to assign value. This is important because retail prices for staples such as potato and onion are not high compared to other goods and services we have to buy, such as insurance and rent.
Here I look at one year’s harvests from a bed measuring 5x16 feet (1.5 x 5m), assess their value, and set that against the time taken to grow and harvest. The bed grew 105kg vegetables, which I harvested between April and December, during a year (2014) of favourable weather.
Timing and type of harvests
For leafy vegetables, best value comes from harvesting little and often. Hence I recommend picking the outer leaves of lettuce on a regular basis, a highly productive method which reduces the need to resow. Here the 10.3kg was an average of 1kg per week though May, June and early July, off 24 plants that were sown undercover in February. This one sowing gave a good value of food and over a long period.
Most salad plants, spaced at 6-9in (1522cm), can be picked in the same way and live for longer than when they are cut across the top. It does not take more time to pick than to cut, especially when you include the massively reduced time needed for clearing, resowing etc.
Precision and discipline
To get the most from what you grow, you need both of these qualities in deciding when to sow and when to harvest. Of course it is nice to say ‘I feel like eating some beans’ and then see what is ready, but beans and many other vegetables need picking regularly, even if you have enough to eat, before they grow too large, tough or go yellow. Develop harvesting habits, even when you don’t need produce to eat, so that your plants keep producing nice output, then be creative in the kitchen with unexpected gluts, or give produce away.
There is an important saying that relates to this: “In order to have enough vegetables, you must have too many.” This is because it’s impossible to grow precisely the right amount, thanks to variables of weather and pests.
Most worthwhile vegetables
The table shows how, if you like eating salad leaves on a regular basis, they are the most valuable vegetables at current prices. Lettuce is the most productive and crops for the longest from one sowing, followed by endive (sown in summer), spinach, oriental leaves, rocket and many herbs.
For the rest, it’s as much about what you like as about prices, because prices reflect the time and costs involved without considering personal preference.
Freshness and flavour
This is what makes home-grown different, especially for vegetables such as carrots,
beans, peas, cabbage, salads and new potatoes. Its worth growing these vegetables in particular, to enjoy those flavours that are hard to buy anywhere.
On the other hand it’s less worthwhile financially to grow onions, beetroot and leeks, which are not expensive to buy. But they are fairly easy to grow and again it depends what you most value for its home-grown quality. For example, there is something deeply satisfying about plaits of garlic and ropes of onions hanging on the wall, and winter squashes adorning a shelf.
To illustrate what vegetables work well in each half of a season, the first and second plantings on this bed were as follows, with some of the many other possibilities in brackets. Radish was inter-sown between the broad beans, a ‘ free crop’ Spinach gave regular pickings, was followed by leek (carrot, salad onion) Cabbage Greyhound gave five hearts in June and was followed by French bean (salads, cucumber)- beans are fiddly to harvest but delicious Lettuce gave harvests over 12 weeks, followed by leek ( beetroot, carrot, kale, broccoli) Potato Swift was quick, early and easy, followed by cucumber ( leek, salads, kale) Beetroot from module-raised plants was followed by endive for leaves (other salads, Florence fennel) Broad beans were productive but needed more space than other veg and were followed by swede ( leek, radicchio, beetroot) Garlic, shallot, onion were followed by beetroot ( kale, salads)
For all this to work well, sow and plant by early April, and cover all plants with fleece for a month to hasten early growth. Then sow the second vegetable a month before the first one finishes, which increases the growing season by a worthwhile amount.
Onion harvest July
Sowing broad beans in early December, to be dibbed
Planting and sowing in March before covering with fleece
Early July planting of French beans