Grow your own veg – you'll dig the savings
With food prices soaring, it's time to grab a spade and get planting, says Kate Hughes
Saturday 26 April 2008
Food price inflation is causing civil unrest worldwide and in the UK the cost of putting food on the table has soared. This year basic staples will cost £780 more than they did last year according to grocery comparison site mysupermarket.co.uk, with the cost of bread, butter, eggs and potatoes increasing by as much as 60 per cent in 12 months.
Spurred on by rocketing supermarket bills, we are now turning in droves to cheaper alternatives and many are beating food inflation by growing their own. Not since the 1970s, when The Good Life was first shown, has sustainable living enjoyed such a growth period. And the numbers add up – dropping out and digging in could save as much as £1,400 a year.
"Making a saving all depends on how large your plot is," says Charlotte Corner of the charity Garden Organic. "But even this is subject to how 'time rich' you are as opposed to how 'cash rich'." But you don't need a very large garden to make it pay. Garden Organic believes a plot as small as 4ft x 4ft (1.2m x 1.2m) could supply vegetables all year round for as little as £50.
If you've got a garden or can get your hands on an allotment, you can save a fortune in vegetables. A standard allotment can yield around a ton of vegetables. If you bought the same amount of organic potatoes, onions, carrots and parsnips in a year, it would cost you around £1,700 from Sainsbury's or a minimum of £1,227 from Asda – even more if you have spent £30 a week on organic vegetables delivered in an attractive crate.
What you'll need
You can spend a fortune on trowels, pruning sheers, pitch forks, shovels, a bit of space, compost bins, water butts and compost. If buying new at Homebase for example, you'll pay at least £130 for this list of equipment. But buying second-hand equipment or using old shovels at the back of the garage, can work out much cheaper – and turning soil rather than pumping weights could save the cost of that expensive gym membership fee.
"For seeds in pots, you can just use your fingers and for digging your garden, raid the family garage or shed to see what has been forgotten and you can reclaim," says Guy Barter, head of horticultural advice for the Royal Horticultural Society. "Often older tools are better than today's equivalents – just because of the care and attention that was put into the making of them. Just remember to keep your tools clean and occasionally sharpen them and they will serve you well."
You can choose to either buy packets of seeds to sow yourself, or you can opt for small plants that you put straight into a big pot on a windowsill or directly into the ground, he says.
"To save money on seeds, keep an eye out for seed-swapping events near you," says Corner. "These events have really taken off in the last few years, and even if you don't have seeds to swap, you can still pick some up for a few pence. If this isn't an option, buy seeds through a seed supplier."
"Start composting your green waste and vegetable peelings by throwing them on a heap instead of in the bin and you can save pounds on bags of compost," she adds. "With home composting you will get a rich compost, full of organic matter, great for growing."
What to grow
If you choose to grow onions, potatoes carrots and parsnips organically (with a £300 budget for equipment, water and seeds), you could still save at least £1,400 compared to buying the same amount in Sainsbury's or at least £927 if you usually shop at Asda. These crops require the least effort, and are least likely to fail. Even if you don't consume a ton, root vegetables can be stored.
The cost of bread has gone up by a massive 20 per cent in the major supermarkets, from 54p to as much as 65p for a basic loaf. But if you happen to have a spare 297sq m (3196sq ft) you can grow enough wheat to supply the bread for a family of four every year, that's worth over £100 a year if your family eats two loaves a week.
You don't even have to have any outside space to grow your own. Potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, and herbs can be produced indoors in windowsills and under sinks. "Some vegetables thrive in containers on a windowsill or patio," says Barter. "Salad leaves, herbs, chillies, broad beans and beetroot will all grow indoors. It also means your plants are less likely be attacked by a pest or disease."
"The budget option would be to use old plastic bottles as pots, buckets, bins, or even an old pair of wellies," says Corner. "But if you have a little cash to spare then how about buying some planters, compost and seeds, which could cost as little as £30."
Economies of scale may mean the indoor option will not save as much, but the upside is by growing spuds indoors you won't find yourself furiously digging in the dark and rain in February to source the chips for dinner.
For more information, the RHS Grow Your Own campaign website offers hints and tips on getting started at www.rhs.org.uk/vegetables; The Garden Organic website is at www.gardenorganic.org.uk, or call 024-7630 3517
Added eggstras – the benefits of keeping your own chickens
Why stop at growing your own vegetables? The cost of free-range eggs has increased by almost 50 per cent in a year. A dozen free-range eggs have gone up from an average of £1.75 to £2.58.
So why not invest in your own chickens? Hens yield around four eggs a week each. Three chickens should cost around £10 to £15. A bag of feed will be around £5 to £6 and lasts around three weeks.
A coop can be bought new from around £150, although you could pick up a cheaper one second hand. An outside space of at least 30x30cm should be available for each bird.
How to get an allotment
By Photini Philippidou
Cultivating an allotment provides numerous social, health, environmental and economic benefits, but getting hold of a plot is becoming increasingly difficult. The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG) says applications have doubled in the last five years. Most councils have a waiting list, and around a third of applicants wait more than a year for a plot. In central London, waiting lists can be as long as 10 years.
The good news is that all local authorities in England and Wales are legally obliged to provide any group of adults (aged 18 and over) with allotments of 250sq m, even if you own a garden, although some boroughs offer half plots of 125sq m.
However, inner-London local authorities are exempt from this statutory obligation, claiming a lack of money and a lack of available land. If you live in central London the NSALG recommends you apply outside of your borough.
If your nearest site is not owned by your local authority, it may be privately owned in which case contact your local allotment association or your council to find out who the owner is, and whether you can rent there. If you feel there is a need for allotments which are not being met, get together with a group of any six residents who are registered on the electoral roll and put your case to the local authority.
If you manage to get a plot from your local authority, it is for life. The authority will need to apply to the Secretary of State to change the land's use so you are technically safeguarded if you stay within the bounds of your tenancy agreement.
Allotments can cost anywhere between £5 and over £100 a year to rent, and this may or may not include your water. But if you are renting from a local authority, it is your landlord's responsibility to at least provide access to a mains water supply, as well as to maintain hedges and gates and paths and hauling ways.
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