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Thoughtful Living: the merits of growing your own fruit and vegetables

We look into all the ways that, when thinking about produce, a plot-to-plate mentality can benefit the planet and your wellbeing

Kate Haines
Thoughtful Living: the merits of growing your own fruit and vegetables

We can all agree that produce is at its best when it’s fresh and seasonal, but the prospect of growing your own fruit and vegetables offers something far sweeter than taste alone.

In the midst of a national food crisis that has seen supermarket costs at their highest in decades, our need for easy access to nutritious fruit and veg has never been greater. Team this with the ways in which the global pandemic reaffirmed our desire for connection with both nature and our communities – and the growing concern for the health of our planet – and the idea of nurturing your own produce becomes ever more appealing.

A study by Wrap, the climate-action NGO, found that Britons throw away an astonishing half a million tonnes of fresh veg and a quarter of a million tonnes of fresh fruit every year, worth a total of £2.1bn – all simply because it’s past its best. One in 10 of us throws out good groceries based on sell-by date alone – a shocking stat when you consider all the energy and water that goes into producing every item of food we buy.

Too Good to Go’s ‘Look, Smell, Taste, Don’t Waste’ campaign, which urges consumers to use their initiative before chucking something, is an encouraging start. But now feels like a vital time for us to seek out a grass-roots, at-home alternative – not only for Mother Earth, but for our own personal wellness. The best part is that a windowsill or small outdoor space could be all you need to get going.

Growing your own – why start?

Better flavours, kinder to the planet and offering a boost to both mental and physical health – the benefits of growing your own fruit and vegetables are myriad. “Growing your own food is a hugely satisfying thing to do, as nourishing for the soul as it is for your stomach,” says Ian James, co-founder of Water Lane, a Victorian walled garden located in Kent that focuses on sustainable growing methods, which we visited last year.

Growing your own allows you to try new things, learn more about where your food comes from and explore a world of choice beyond that offered on supermarket shelves. “You can experiment by trying unusual and heritage varieties for taste, colour and texture,” Ian adds. “Even those with the smallest space and little time to spare will be able to grow salad leaves, mustards, cress and herbs.”

What can growing your own produce do for the planet?

Growing produce seasonally and organically benefits our health and the planet’s. “By growing at home, we can avoid air, road and sea miles,” says Thomas Broom-Hughes, director of horticulture at Petersham Nurseries, and by not using harmful pesticides, fungicides and herbicides we limit the amount of chemicals that find their way into our water systems and rivers. As the true scale of water pollution in Britain becomes increasingly apparent, no doubt this will be on the minds of many.

Gardening with earth-friendly principles also encourages biodiversity. “By growing your own food, you will almost instantly create a more encouraging environment for wildlife, attracting bees and butterflies, as well as birds, frogs and toads,” Ian adds.

What impact does growing have on local communities?

Nothing brings people together quite like sharing food and ideas. Florists and growers Olivia Wilson and Jess Geissendorfer, and chef Lulu Cox know this better than most. Together they make up SSAW Collective, a trio with a soil-to-plate ethos. “Gardening is well recognised as a form of therapy and as something that encourages happiness,” Jess tells us. “During the summer months when vegetables, flowers, and herbs grow in abundance, communities can share meals, connect over recipes and make the most of the bounty.”

Beyond the food itself, growing in community spaces can also  have an impact on deeper social issues, affirming a sense of togetherness that is at the heart of healthy society. Thomas has first-hand experience of this. “As an allotment holder, I know how a space for a growing community can be a wonderful place for both adults and children to learn. For many, it can ameliorate loneliness and enable members of the community to contribute to society, especially beyond retirement.”

What are the health and wellbeing benefits?

From anxiety and stress relief to keeping fit, practising mindfulness and boosting Vitamin D, getting outdoors to grow your own produce has a long list of perks, with the British Psychological Society finding that gardening increases overall life satisfaction. Research in Sweden has also shown that it reduces stress in individuals too, even those with only a balcony. “Living in cities can be mentally draining,” says Jess. “Taking time to be in nature – listening to the birds, noticing insects and working with your hands – can help switch off that continuous buzz.”

Alongside the sense of accomplishment that comes with nurturing something from seed to supper, there are financial benefits to getting outside to grow. Experts have found that aubergines, brussels sprouts and courgettes make some of the most purse-friendly produce to grow in the garden, with one packet of seeds helping you to save up to £149 in food costs (a packet of courgette seeds could see you yielding as many as 512 in a single year).

“Without a doubt, growing your own can also help your bank balance,” Thomas tells us, “particularly if you’re able to preserve and store the things you’ve grown in the more abundant summer months.” Just think of all the chutney for sandwiches you could make, or pickled pears at Christmas…

How does homegrown produce compare?

In terms of quality, quantity and taste, homegrown fruit and vegetables beat shop-bought every time. Not only does growing your own produce broaden your horizons in terms of choice, it means you can focus on the varieties you love – and most importantly – will use, helping reduce food waste. “When looking at what’s sold in supermarkets, you’d think there were only a couple of apple varieties, when in fact there are more that 2,500 in the country,” Ian tells us.

Supermarkets often store so-called ‘fresh’ food for weeks, impacting both its flavour and nutritional value. As SSAW’s Jess explains: “Too often varieties are shipped in from abroad, even when they grow well in the UK – primarily due to cost.” And because supermarkets dictate the weight and size of each item, “it’s also harder for shoppers to buy the right quantities.” Locally or homegrown produce – which comes in all shapes and sizes – can help reduce the amount that gets thrown away.

Wrap’s 2022 study supported this idea. As well as making clear the ways single-use plastics used in food packaging are harmful, the organisation revealed that food wrapped in bulk – a whole bag of carrots, for instance – forces shoppers to buy more than they need, resulting in more waste. The study also found that plastic wrapping didn’t impact the lifespan of fruit and veg that hadn’t been pre-cut for customers (storage methods and temperatures were far more influential).

Can anyone start growing their own?

Yes! “Start with two or three things and try a few easy wins such as salad leaves and strawberries,” Ian says. But remember: growing is a trial-and-error process and starting over can sometimes be part of the fun.

“Choosing vegetables that grow upwards can also be a good way to save space,” adds Thomas. “It’s important to research which varieties will remain compact so they don’t outgrow their surroundings.” Herbs are a wonderful way to begin, Jess tells us. “They don’t need to be in fancy pots! You can even use supermarket crates. You can also plant potatoes and tomatoes directly into compost bags.”

Feeling inspired? Here’s what our experts are growing this year:

“In spring, my favourites are broad beans and gooseberries; in summer, everything!” Ian tells us. “When it comes to autumn and winter, I focus on pumpkins, quince and kalettes.” Jess upholds the humble herb, “especially delicious things you can’t easily get hold of in supermarkets, like chervil and lemon verbena,” she says. Finally, Thomas tells us how food follows the seasons at Petersham Nurseries: “In summer we grow an abundance of courgettes for both their fruit and flowers, harvesting apples and quinces from our trees in the autumn, and bitter chicories from the veg patch in winter.” Delicious.

Planted a seed?

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