Why do we grow our own fruits and veges? "Let me count the ways", as Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) wrote, in a different context. Why does the UK harbour 350,000 allotment holders, with a long waiting list for others to stake a claim to their own hallowed plot? Why does the US have 100 million gardeners? Well, it does, but that figure may include those with only a pot plant or two on the window sill! So, why do I grow my own veges - and some fruit?
The main reasons that people give for homegrown food include freshness, variety, flavour, ripeness, no pesticide residues, no fossil-fuel-burning transport costs, companionship, the chance to share produce with family, friends and neighbours, exercise, fresh air and the joy of experiencing a bit of nature. If I see or hear a bellbird in my garden, or spot a New Zealand falcon flying over, those flashes of native biodiversity make my day.
Actually, the medical profession now recognises the health benefits of our spending time doing "green exercise". "A dose of nature" they call it and it's much better than spending bleak time on one of those gruesome exercise machines — I'd trade all that stainless steel and sweat for the joy of pulling the first baby carrots from my tunnel house.
"Hang on," I hear you cry, "I don't have much garden space, or time and I have lost much of the 'elasticity of youth', so all that digging, kneeling and bending are beyond me — and anyway, I don't know when to plant peas, cultivate carrots or fertilise fennel."
Don't worry, members of your local garden club or your neighbour will willingly give advice and a simple raised bed in the sunniest part of the garden (front or back) will soon become a mini carrot cornucopia. The joy of cooking your own produce, or giving slivers of home grown fresh carrots to the kids before tea is a real pleasure.
It seems to me that all young kids love the crunch of fresh carrots — but hate them when cooked! What's that? You say you don't have the skills to construct a raised bed, even if it comes in kit form from the garden centre? Don't worry, nor do I! I use the GAMI technique — "Get a Man In". Okay, I GAWI too, sometimes.
Mix garden soil with bought compost or buy topsoil and three-quarters fill the box-like container. However, do not chuck in roadside bags of horses' doo-dahs; the equine digestion can't kill weed seeds and you will soon see weeds that you never thought existed. Buy non-root vege seedings from a garden centre (the root-producing ones, like carrots, need to be directly sown) or, better, buy the plants in batches, wrapped in damp newspaper, from the supermarket. However, don't whack in giant plants such as leeks, brussels sprouts or cabbages or caulis — they can dominate your limited space.
Plants of baby bok choi (protected with pet-safe slug pellets) are one of my favourites — sliced thinly and tossed in hot oil with a bit of green ginger, garlic and chilli flakes and they are ready sooner — and taste better — than frozen peas.
So, don't be put off from trying the home grown stuff. We don't need Browning to help us "count the ways" — I hope I have given you enough reasons to enjoy that "dose of nature".
Steve Wratten is Professor of Ecology at Lincoln University.