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Grow Your Own

May has been a busy time in the garden. getting more vegetable plants into their beds (or “forever homes” as we call them!) and sowing even more seeds. I find seed sowing very therapeutic, and seeing the magic of a seedling emerge from the soil brings me joy every time.

I’d been having some problems with getting cucumber seeds to germinate. Neither outside nor inside our house was warm enough for long enough to get them going. I was feeling very disappointed having tasted homegrown cucumbers for the first time that my dad grew last year, the taste and crispness blew me away, so I was desperate to grow my own this year. After some research I came across the process of chitting seeds to give them a quick start in life. Carefully soaking and then wrapping the seeds in damp kitchen roll, sealed in a plastic bag they sat on the radiator. Each day I carefully unwrapped them for a peak, and on the third day they had sprouted their first root! After transferring them to compost they continued to sprout, and I transferred them to the polytunnel where they have continued to grow.

Many of us are spending more time in our gardens, and growing our own during lockdown. Understanding where our food comes from is so important for connecting with nature. Olly has never grown a vegetable in his life, seeing him learning what a broccoli (his favourite vegetable!) plant looks like, how it grows, what it needs, is so refreshing for me. I’m not a vegetable growing expert, but as a child I did help around the garden and was privileged enough to know what most vegetable plants looked like and how to grow some of them. Gardening brings back fond memories of time in the garden with my mum and grandparents.

It’s our first year on North Ronaldsay and I wanted to grow on an ambitious scale. This has been costly and time intensive, I’m not sure we would have achieved it if Olly hadn’t been on lockdown here with little work. But my reasons for growing my own did not include saving money on fresh produce. I’m sure if you live somewhere with a less extreme climate growing tomatoes, for example, would save you money compared with shop bought tomatoes. My tomato plants wouldn’t survive outside in the wind for a start. But I think once you have a garden in place, in can be cheap to sustain. Once you have the tools and structures for growing in, you can make your own compost and compost teas as liquid fertilisers, and save your own seeds (which I’ll go into shortly).

Personally, the main reasons for wanting to grow my own vegetables:

  • cut down on packaging, especially plastic - the vast majority of the seeds I have bought come in little paper envelopes, inside a bigger paper envelope in the post. Vegetables are covered in plastic, the vast majority of which is not recyclable, and we do not have the facilitates to recycle them on Orkney even if they were. The plastic that the vegetables come in when they get to me is just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce!) of packaging that they have consumed during growing, harvest and distribution.

  • cut down on food miles - especially during lockdown where I can’t go to the shops to choose my own vegetables I have no idea where they were grown and how many miles they have travelled. I get what’s picked out for me. Even if it is British or Scottish grown, it’s still had to take a lorry on a ferry to get to Orkney. Then a plane or another ferry to get to North Ronaldsay.

  • growing organically and with nature

  • taste, nutrients, freshness. Nothing tastes as good as something you’ve grown yourself. There’s nothing better than eating a tomato straight off the plant, warmed by the sun.

  • varieties - vegetable varieties that are grown for supermarkets and other shops are selected for: keeping fresh for longer, thicker skins so they don’t bruise or get damaged, they all ripen at the same time so harvesting is easier, uniform appearance, disease and pest resistance. These characteristics are potentially selected for over things that I want from a vegetable: taste, texture, and nutritional value.

  • eating seasonally - we’re so out of touch with what grows when, we get some many imported vegetables and fruit, so we can eat strawberries and green beans at any time of year. I think eating seasonally is important for connecting with nature and important for getting the most nutrients out of what we eat.

Seed saving

I wish saving your own seed was talked about more on gardening programs, particularly when it comes to vegetable varieties. Heirloom varieties are so important for maintaining biodiversity. We have lost so much diversity because of something called the National List. The National List was created to ensure the the seeds in the packet you bought where the seeds of what was advertised on the packet. Which seems like a great idea to protect consumers, however it has meant that unless a variety is on the National List, it can’t be marketed. Getting a variety on the National List costs money, which has meant that the majority of varieties on the List are only the ones which are profitable for big companies which can afford to do so, hence the loss of many varieties and consequently diversity. Many of the varieties I’m growing only exist because gardeners have saved them, not because they’re profitable for big seed companies.

I have only grown non-hybrid (ie not F1) varieties, because I want to be able to save my own seed, thereby reducing my costs when growing next year. I have also looked for varieties which may be better suited to my climate and growing conditions.

We’ve had a dry few weeks so when it decided to tip it down we really wanted to be able to conserve the rainwater. While we’re not on a water meter, processing the water that comes through the tap takes energy and resources, so it males sense to tap into a sustainable option for watering our plants. Our mains water here is also extremely hard (wreaking havoc with our kettle, and I suspect other appliances over time), which isn’t great for the plants either. We’re storing rain water in as many vessels as we can get our hands on, which is a bit labour intensive, but we have our eye on some permaculture inspired ideas for the future (e.g. DIY wind turbine to pump water, or bicycle powered!).

If you buy one book on growing your own vegetables it has to be this: Joy Larkcom’s Grow Your Own Vegetables

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