The good life! Cookery and gardening with Jamie

Jamie Oliver has whetted the nation's appetite for fresh food, sparking a boom in the number of Britons growing their own. Susie Mesure reports
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The Independent Online

Away with your frozen mash, Delia. Fans of real food are hailing a new hero. He is the faux-cockney chef who has turned his attention from the school canteen to the vegetable patch, prompting a green-fingered boom at the nation's garden centres.

Jamie Oliver's cookery-cum-gardening show Jamie at Home (Channel 4) has inspired a new generation of gardeners who are swapping lobelia for lettuce in even the smallest of city gardens as they strive for the good life.

Figures last week from the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA), the industry body, showed that January and February were exceptionally busy months for garden retailers, with sales up by almost a third on the previous year. Demand was strongest for seed potatoes, vegetable seeds and fruit trees.

Proof of the public's interest in growing their own will come as a relief for foodies after a week that saw Delia Smith demonised for espousing the joys of tinned mince, frozen mash and pre-chopped carrots in her new BBC show, How to Cheat at Cooking.

The "Jamie effect" follows last year's success of the BBC's Grow Your Own Veg series, fronted by Carol Klein. Her book was the biggest-selling gardening tome last year, taking close to £1m in sales. Industry executives said other triggers for the grow-your-own boom include concern over rising food prices, a gathering sense of economic gloom and – Delia aside – an increasing interest in fresh ingredients.

Some seed manufacturers, such as Mr Fothergill's, have seen sales of edible seeds outstrip ornamental seeds by a ratio of four to one. Vegetable seed sales now account for nearly three-quarters of Unwins' business, up from just over a third five years ago. Last year gardeners spent £62m on all seeds, vegetable and ornamental, according to the HTA, which added that the value of vegetable seeds sold has soared by 30 per cent over the past five years, while the value of flower seeds has slumped by a similar amount.

A government-backed campaign to get people growing potatoes is also hitting home. Keith Nicholson, head of marketing at Westland Horticulture, which owns Unwins, said: "The biggest growth is in seed potatoe sales, which have grown by 35 to 40 per cent in the last 12 months. We can't keep up with demand for our new vegetable-growing compost."

Gillie Westwood, chief executive of the Garden Centre Association (GCA), said: "It's a touch of the old Jamie Oliver and various government initiatives promoting grow your own and getting people to eat healthily."

The GCA said sales of seeds and bulbs rose 14 per cent in February.

Andrew Maxted, the HTA's commercial services director, added: "The rate of edible-seed sales is accelerating all the time, which shows that last year's growth was not just a fad. For sales to be strong in January and February shows that growers are rotating crops to keep their kitchens supplied. There are economies to growing your own, as well as freshness and organic considerations."

Ian Cross, retail marketing manager at Mr Fothergill's, said the explosion in demand for allotments from people yet to retire was another reason vegetable seeds are in demand. One couple fuelling sales is Louise Krzan and her partner Chris Haslam, both 30, who have an allotment in Walthamstow, east London. "We can't be fully sustainable living in London but we can grow some organic vegetables that we know are local," Ms Krzan said.

Another family that knows all about the merits of growing your own is the Strawbridges, who described their experience of living the good life in the book and TV series It's Not Easy Being Green: One Family's Journey Towards Eco-Friendly Living.

Brigit Strawbridge, who runs courses for others seeking to emulate their green living, says: "If I wanted to push one big thing, it would be the importance of locally grown food."