What growing my own has taught me about organic food

I grew up in a family of gardeners.

My grandfather took great pride in his vegetable patch and I still remember the warm smell of tomatoes in his greenhouse.

My dad planted potatoes every spring and my mum used to send me out picking runner beans from the plants she grew up our fence.

As a child, I saw gardening as something that the adults did. It never crossed my mind that I would be a vegetable grower myself one day.

21 years ago, a friend told me with great excitement that she had an allotment, and asked if I would like to go and see it.

Seeing her small plot with a shed in the corner took me back to my childhood. I heard myself asking if I could put my name on the waiting list.

A couple of months later I found myself pregnant.

A year later, when my daughter was a tiny baby, I received a letter telling me that I’d been allocated an allotment of my own.

I knew nothing about gardening and nor did my partner, but I was very excited to have a vegetable garden.

It was a steep learning curve.

Organic growing

Avoiding unnecessary drugs and chemicals is something I wholeheartedly believe in.

The world is full of them. The food we eat and the products we put on our skin often contain chemicals in one form or another.

This is why I believe in reading labels and asking questions.

There are four pillars to growing organically.

Using organic seed, making compost, controlling pests without chemicals and weeding instead of spraying.

  1. Organic seeds are guaranteed not to be genetically modified or treated with fungicides.
  2. I’ve become obsessed with making my own compost. I add seaweed and comfrey to improve the minerals in my soil, and hence my vegetables.
  3. The hardest part of growing vegetables is making sure seedlings make it through the first couple of weeks. Slugs and snails are probably the worst. We put down little tubs of beer which act as traps to attract them away from the plants. Over the years I’ve made peace with pests. I know I can’t stop them completely so I try to grow things that aren’t affected too much.
  4. Weeds stop vegetable plants from getting established as they compete for nutrients and water. Grass is a surprisingly bad weed. A tiny grass seedling is so small, it almost doesn’t seem worth pulling up. Two weeks later, that blade of grass has turned into a clump and it’s even harder to pull up. Two months later, it’s like a carpet!

Why I avoid pesticides

I’ve never used pesticides or weed-killer sprays.

I don’t want to eat food that’s been sprayed with chemicals.

Pesticides are chemicals that damage the nervous and hormone systems of insects, and stop them from moving around and reproducing themselves.

Weed-killers work in different ways, but many contain metals and other substances that are toxic to humans as well as wildlife.

That’s why I don’t use them in my garden.

If you want to know more about pesticides and health, pan-uk.org is a good place to start.

When I bring organic produce home, it’s dirty and I have to wash really thoroughly to remove all the pests.

Little wiggly things come out of my raspberries.

There are flies and baby slugs inside my lettuces.

But I honestly don’t mind a bit of washing.

At least I know my own produce is pesticide-free.

How I make organic food more affordable

Organic farming is more labour intensive than conventional farming and that cost is reflected in the price of buying organic.

The cost of buying simple ingredients to cook from scratch is cheaper than buying ready-made or processed food.

I won’t pretend that all of our food is organic.

Even though we grow our own fruit and veg, it’s not always practical or possible for every meal to be entirely organic.

I prioritise buying organic dairy produce (no antibiotic residue), and organic fruit (fruit is highly sprayed).

Organic beans and lentils are good value and go a long way.

Weekly meal planning and batch cooking helps me avoid food waste as I am less likely to ‘overbuy’.

As with everything, I believe that small things make a big difference.

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