Have you ever dreamed of growing your own fruit and vegetables or rearing hens or bees for an endless supply of eggs and honey? It may sound idyllic, but just how achievable is the good life – and will it save you any money?
Getting back to nature and shifting away from buying everything at the supermarket is becoming increasingly popular.
There are around 100,000 people currently on allotment waiting lists and it’s not just a hobby for the retired either. According to a recent study by Wyevale Garden Centres, 42% of under-40s in the UK grow vegetables in their garden, compared to 32% of over-60s.
This surge is partly because of the growing price of food – we spend £60.60 a week per household, up from £58 last year, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Growing public awareness of where our food comes from and the impact that it has on the environment has also seen more people turning to their gardens for food production.
Brexit has also played a part, it’s seen a boost in people stockpiling food, and one garden centre in Scotland has even launched its own ‘Grow Your Own Brexit Survival Kit’ for £35, which contains 12 packs of seeds.
Above and below: Trevor Shields works his allotment Photos: Simon Hadley
Dr Trevor Shields, 56, from Birmingham grows most of his food on his allotment and estimates that he’s now saving £80 a month.
“Growing your own vegetables makes you appreciate the time and effort that goes in and my recipes are based on what is seasonal,” explains Trevor, who retired in 2015 from the University of Birmingham and lives with his partner, Mary, and daughter Megan.
He spends a few hours a week on the allotment and admits that at times it can be hard work but, he says: “It’s also a case of sitting in the deckchair and enjoying a barbecue with my fellow allotmenteers.”
Trevor has always tried to live a frugal and conscientious life, and he extends this into his personal finances by banking with Triodos, which he picked because he wanted to be able to invest in ethical projects.
The 20 by seven metre plot he rents costs £90 a year and, apart from the cost of some extra tools, it pays for itself. This is the average amount for a yearly plot in the UK, and often the cost of upkeep – tools, seeds and compost – are low because these can be picked up second-hand or for free when swapping with others on the allotment.
What you decide to grow can make a big impact on the overall costs. One of the most cost-efficient things to grow in a garden, or on a windowsill, is herbs, which are expensive to buy fresh, says Guy Barter, chief horticulturist for the Royal Horticultural Society.
“Raspberries are the most popular soft fruit, but currants and gooseberries are also easy. Strawberries crop relatively lightly but will certainly please children, and in sheltered gardens in the south or in cities, figs are excellent fruit trees doing especially well in pots,” he adds.
For vegetables, Mr Barter says: “Tomatoes ripened to perfection in the sun are well worth the effort but go easy on courgettes and runner beans as they famously over-produce, leaving you with gluts. A handful of plants of each is sufficient.”
Alongside the cost there are lots of benefits of growing your own, from the fresh air and exercise from being outside, the savings on food miles and your carbon footprint, a reduction in single-use plastic, and the reward of eating something you’ve grown from scratch.
For beginners, it’s a good idea to go for something easy to grow that will produce a good crop.
“You can invest £20 in a small apple tree, for example, but you won’t get a crop for the first two or three years. However, a £4 strawberry plant or a pack of strawberry seeds for £1, will give you a few punnets a year for the next three or four years – which could cost you £3 fresh,” says Sarah Brown, spokesperson for the charity Garden Organic.
Asparagus plants, which cost around 75p per crown, can last up to 20 years if you’ve prepared the bed well and keep it topped up with compost, she explains.
If you were to sow half a pack of seeds of purple sprouting broccoli (a pack costs around £2), they should keep producing throughout the winter months and that will save you quite a bit when compared to supermarket prices.
“Runner beans are also a great money saver,” says Mrs Brown, pointing out you only need to sow around six beans (packets containing 25 beans cost £1-£2), to produce a kilo of beans of young sweet pods, unlike the oversized tough and stringy ones sold in the supermarket.
Wendy Alcock with her flock at home in North London
Keeping animals is also popular in the UK, be it traditional farm animals such as hens, pigs or sheep, or setting up and rearing a bee farm.
Wendy Alcock, 43, has been keeping chickens in her home in Barnet for the past six years. Not only are they lovable pets, they’ve kept her well stocked with fresh eggs and the surplus is sold off to her husband Neil’s co-workers.
Wendy advises getting no more than two or three to start with, because they do need space to wander around. She started with three ex-commercial hens, priced at £15 each, and in the first year had around 300 eggs from each of them – which she said are nothing like the supermarket variety and have bright orange yolks.
The hens have a life span of around three to four years and Wendy says it takes around five minutes a day to check on them and make sure they have water.
“You don’t need to buy food as they eat whatever they can peck – grass or plants or weeds – but the big outlay is the housing costs. As we live in an area where there are foxes, I went for a more expensive chicken house and run, which cost about £500 in total, but this should last for a long time,” she says.
“One thing people don’t think about is the amount of poo chickens create,” warns Wendy, although she says she uses it all in her compost bin to help create nutrient-rich soil in which to grow most of her own fruit and veg.
It’s often free to adopt ex-battery hens, although some centres will ask for a small donation, and “it’s a common misconception that you need to have acres of land or a smallholding to keep hens”, says Francesca Mapp, spokesperson for the British Hen Welfare Trust.
You choose the size of the flock you want to adopt, from three hens upwards. On top of this add feed, if necessary, which costs around £10 to £15 a month. You’ll also need fresh bedding, available cheaply at local garden shops.
“Hens require a basic amount of daily commitment and cannot be left for days to fend for themselves. This includes a daily clean of the hen house and run area and a complete clean out every two weeks,” she adds.
Francesca says that while they cannot guarantee the hens will keep laying eggs, “nine times out of 10 you will continue getting enough for your breakfast – and the eggs that are laid by your own pet hens at the bottom of your garden are quite simply the best eggs you’ll probably ever taste.”
On top of using the animals for food, many households have also started to supplement their income by selling what they don’t need.
Julie Macken, 49, moved to Oxford seven years ago to a house with a beehive that she and her daughter, Neve, decided to take on. They now sell lip balms, hand salves and gift packs made with the beeswax.
“I knew nothing about honeybees or bee-keeping so I contacted the local British Beekeeping Association and we did their course before getting started,” says Julie.
She splits her time between working with the company, Neve’s Bees, and running workshops and courses for small businesses – which she did full-time before starting the business.
“Managing the hives doesn’t take all that long but developing the knowledge around how to keep the bees does take a few seasons to feel competent,” she says.
“All the money made from the business has been ploughed back into it, paying for the maintenance of the bees and the hives, the materials for the products, a designer, web developer, and various advisers and consultants to help us get started.”
This year will be their first full year of trading and they are on course to turn over £40,000 to £50,000. They now sell at a number of shops, in and around Oxford, and at local fairs.
“People keep bees for many reasons and I’d encourage anyone who’s interested to go on a ‘taster course’ with the British Beekeepers Association,” says Julie. “I’ve found it to be a really engaging hobby and now, for us, it’s a means to make a living.”
Julie Macken and her daughter, Neve Photo: Neve’s Bees
Rebecca Goodman writes for publications including This is Money, MailOnline, The Sun and LoveMONEY.com