Rising food prices, a desire to eat more healthily and celebrity chefs extolling the virtues of hard-to-source fruit, vegetables and herbs have prompted many amateur gardeners to grow their own.
About one quarter of us now grow at least some of our own food, according to research by consumer group Which?, and one in six of those said they had been encouraged by the idea of trying to save money.
A survey for the Edible Garden Show earlier this year found that grow-your-own gardeners save an average of £268 a year, although research by the National Allotment Society indicated that the savings could be even higher: a plot measuring 250 square metres could produce fruit and vegetables worth £1,300 when cultivated by very experienced gardeners.
Jan and Dave Cleal have grown many of their own vegetables and salad in the back garden of their south London home and allotment for more than 20 years now, but they are sceptical about such claims. Jan believes that the expense of buying seeds, compost and fertiliser outweighs any savings they might make. “We grow very expensive vegetables, but they taste wonderful. We have a great time nurturing them and can pick them when the time is absolutely right – that is worth a considerable premium on the price you might pay at the supermarket,” she says.
So putting aside the considerable pleasure to be gained from spending hours in the potting shed, can amateur gardeners, especially those who are starting from scratch and having to buy gardening equipment, really reap the cost benefits of growing their own produce?
Guy Barter, chief horticulturalist at the Royal Horticultural Society, says: “It is true that the cost of homegrown food can be pretty high by the time you have bought all the things you are told are necessary to garden – tools, seeds, plants, raised beds, fertiliser, slug pellets and so on.
“But, on the other hand, if you are lucky enough to have a sunny plot and can enrich the soil with homemade compost and are happy to grow perfectly serviceable common seeds [in packets] that typically provide a thousand seeds for a pound or two, then vegetables can cost next to nothing. Secondhand tools are also widely offered, and although not fancy will do the job well enough.”
The margin of error between making a saving or not is obviously very tight. So what can gardeners do to reduce the costs of growing their own?
Achieving good yields
“Yield is everything,” says Mr Barter. “You need fertile soil, but you can achieve this by adding homemade compost. Having said this, fertiliser is the most cost-effective thing you can buy to improve fertility, but ideally buy big economy packs for the lowest costs. Handy packs are startlingly expensive.”
So is compost. This year, multi-purpose compost at my local garden centre is selling for an average of £5 for 80 litres. However, while unsterilised, homemade compost is not great to put container grown plants in, it is fantastic for enriching the soil in your garden.
Composters range from £20 for a basic ‘Dalek’-style plastic bin to £100 for a rotating composter. But you can make a very cheap and effective composter by nailing together three wooden pallets (mine cost £3 each from a local animal-feed store) to form three sides of a square, and using a fourth as a removable door to prevent your heap from spreading.
Start with a layer of coarse material – straw or twigs – at the bottom. Then add layers of garden waste, vegetable peelings and used teabags, shredded paper, soft hedge clippings and mowed grass. Once your container is full, add a layer of earth, followed by a piece of old carpet or plastic weighted down to keep the heat in. After a few months, mix the layers with a fork to introduce oxygen and encourage the generation of more heat, then re-cover. After another three months you should have lovely, friable (has a crumbly texture) compost.
A packet may contain more seeds than you need for one, or even two, seasons. Seeds do not last forever, with germination tending to drop off sharply after the first couple of years, so it makes sense to share seeds with other gardeners. This means that not only are the seeds used while they are fresh, but you benefit from a wider range at no extra cost.
For unusual varieties look out for community seed swaps, which normally take place from January to March each year. Seedy Sunday, the UK’s biggest seed-swapping event based in Brighton, saw more than 3,000 gardeners selling or swapping seeds this year, often from heirloom varieties. You can find details of events around the country and information about how to run your own seed swap on Seedysunday.org.
Cuttings are another good way to get free plants. Observer gardening columnist James Wong suggests carefully cutting out the lateral shoots from tomato plants – the bits that you would normally consign to the compost bin – and potting them up. He says: “Being packed full of growth hormones, they are super-easy to root and their incredibly rapid growth rate means they often catch up with their parent plants within as little as a month.”
When most people first start gardening, they are simply grateful for plants that stay alive. But if you really want to maximise the return on your effort and time, it pays to try a few things that are more unusual or expensive to buy, such as jerusalem and globe artichokes, padron (or tapas) peppers, sprouting broccoli, watercress and fennel.
Soft fruit also tends to be much more expensive to buy than fresh vegetables, so you might want to invest in strawberries, gooseberries, currants, blackberries and even apricots or greengages if you have room for a tree in your garden.
Grow for taste, choosing varieties that are recommended for their flavour, such as Sakura tomatoes and Pink Fir Apple salad potatoes. Jan Cleal also recommends growing asparagus, carrots, swedes and sweetcorn, “all of which taste like completely different vegetables if you pick and eat them on the same day”.
Herbs, which usually cost at least £1 for a small pot in the supermarket, also offer good value when grown at home. A packet of dill, parsley or tarragon seeds costs around £2 and will keep you going all year with fresh leaves. If you like pesto, bulk-grow basil to make your own. Once you have experienced the homemade sauce, you will never buy a jar of pesto again.
Too much of a good thing
Anyone who has grown courgettes or runner beans will understand the frustration of having no veg one day, only to be overwhelmed with produce the next. Mr Barter says: “Gluts are a potent way of losing value from crops as everything matures at once.”
Freezing is the easiest way to extend the shelf life of fruit and vegetables, but unless you already have a chest freezer, the amount you can save is likely to be limited. I recently spent more than £200 on a chest freezer to hold plastic bottles of home-pressed apple juice. The juice, from a Discovery apple tree, is fragrant and delicious, but it will be several years before our consumption covers the cost of the outlay on our freezer and electricity.
Preserving, pickling and making chutneys is a good way to use up excess produce and can result in more delicious and less sugary versions than supermarket brands, and some people sell their excess crops at the roadside.
But the best thing is to avoid having too much of a glut. Try planning what to grow with your gardening neighbours: with each putting in different crops, you can share the results and enjoy a much wider range of vegetables, salads and fruit.
Are chickens worth the expense?
I have some very photogenic hens, but they are heinously expensive to run compared to the cost of buying eggs. Saving money by keeping your own hens is impossible with Tesco charging as little as £1.25 for a tray of 15 ‘value’ eggs.
A good layer will produce around 300 eggs a year – worth £25 a year based on the Tesco value price. You will spend this amount on food alone for each hen.
A hen house is likely to be your biggest expense, costing from £100 to more than £400, depending on size. Chickens cost about £15 for an 18-week-old, point of lay hen, although rare breeds can cost considerably more. A bale of wood shavings for bedding costs around £10, and you will also need to buy louse and red mite deterrent for both the hens and their house at about £8 a tub. Unless you are prepared to dispatch an ailing chicken, you should also prepare yourself for vets’ fees: one of my girls clocked up a bill of more than £100 a few weeks ago.
But it is worth it. My hens are completely free range, their eggs are usually eaten within a couple of days of being laid and are more yellow than shop-bought eggs, with a rich, intense flavour. Even the supermarket’s free-range, organic eggs cannot compare. And within a few days of looking after your hens, you will realise that they have huge personalities and are as much a part of the family as your dog or cat.