— Sara Venn (@Saralimback) July 28, 2017
Is growing veg easy? There’s a big trend in the gardening media at the moment promoting growing your own vegetables as easy, or simple. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that, unless you promote something as ‘easy’, people aren’t going to try it. There’s a flip-side to that, of course; if you say something is easy and people try and fail, then they’re not going to want to try it again. Or maybe it’s just because the people writing the articles have been gardening for so long that everything they do has become routine.
So is growing veg easy? Yes. And no.
If you go to the garden centre in the spring and buy a grow bag and a couple of tomato plants and some tomato feed, and follow the instructions in a gardening magazine (plant, protect from frost, water, feed, water, feed… harvest when red), then yes, that’s pretty easy.
Except… there’s staking, and tying in, and side-shooting, so it gets a little bit more complex. (One reason I always grow bush tomatoes!) And the elephant in the room is that your tomatoes are likely to die from blight, which runs rampant in warm, humid summers. They may also get blossom end rot, or split from uneven watering. And at the end of the summer you’ll be left with green tomatoes that won’t ripen outside.
But you can learn to deal with all of those, one step at a time. There are pictures and YouTube videos to show you side-shooting. You can buy blight-resistant varieties. Blossom end rot and splitting aren’t the end of the world. There are lots of recipes around for using up tangy, green tomatoes.
Your tomatoes will be home-grown, and some of them will have ripened on the vine, and they may well be the best tomatoes you’ve ever tasted. But they won’t be the cheapest, they won’t be the tastiest tomatoes in existence, and they won’t have had the lightest footprint on the planet.
So next year, having grown your easy tomatoes, you might complicate matters a bit. Perhaps you will grow your own from seed, which gives you a larger choice of varieties. You might decide to choose a peat-free grow bag, to protect the peat bogs that are a critical part of our environment. There’s an organic version of the tomato feed, so that’s better as well. And a little plastic greenhouse will help protect the plants from frost, and from blight.
In the third year, perhaps, you’ll be choosing heritage varieties, for flavour and seed saving, planting your tomatoes in homemade compost, and feeding them with liquid comfrey feed. You’ll have spare plants, so you’re swapping with friends and neighbours, and you’re preserving your bountiful harvest for use in the winter months.
Things have got a lot less simple, but taken one step at a time, it’s not difficult. We’ve gone from learning to grow our own tomatoes, probably for fun, to growing a crop that tastes better than we could buy, is less damaging for the environment, healthier for us and probably cheaper. But we didn’t get there overnight.
Growing single type of veg can be easy. Growing a range of veg year round requires a lot of knowledge and practice
— Wendy Pillar (@jwPillar) July 29, 2017
Of course, at some point on this journey, most people would expand from growing just one crop. They’d want some salad leaves to go with their tomatoes, or basil, or cucumbers. Each one of those crops has its own needs. That’s just the summer crops. Maybe we’d like to grow something to eat in the winter – another set of needs and timings. And next year we need to rotate our crops around the garden, to avoid encouraging disease. Now we’ve got a polyculture we’ll be having fewer problems with pests, but maybe we’d like to grow things to encourage beneficial insects and other wildlife into the garden. And I haven’t even mentioned the vagaries of the weather!
Growing most fruits and vegetables is simple enough for anyone to have a go, and we’re lucky that success or failure isn’t a life or death issue – our gardens are learning environments. But, as any gardener will tell you, vegetable growing is complex enough to take a lifetime to master. Most will admit there’s a crop they struggle to grow successfully. And they’ll also tell you that gardening can be bl**dy hard work!
I’ve been thinking a lot about complexity recently. I have been reading The Third Plate, a book by chef Dan Barber. Barber goes in search of the best, most flavourful ingredients for his kitchen and discovers an uncomfortable truth. They don’t come from industrial farms, or even organic monocultures. Flavour (and nutrition) arise in complex ecosystems, managed in tune with nature. To create healthy, tasty food, farmers have to grow a lot of things we don’t tend to eat – crops in the rotation, for example, that are only used for animal fodder. Barber wants to change that; one of his signature dishes is now ‘rotation risotto’, created from grains that don’t normally make it onto the menu (in North America, at least!).
Barber describes some beautiful environments that are producing wonderful food – which would be beyond the reach of most people. Could these sustainable systems feed the world? Barber thinks the answer is yes, as long as we are prepared to eat what can be sustainably farmed, rather than insisting on a meat-heavy, prime cuts only kind of diet. He’s rediscovering that a more peasant-style diet can be healthier and very tasty, in essence. You can get a feel for his (well-researched and constantly evolving) ideas by listening to a recent episode of the Food Programme. (He does rack up some air miles, though, so his environmental credentials aren’t entirely pukka!)