20 Missions 9: Growing Your Own Food

Mission 9: Growing Your Own Food

Your mission this week, should you choose to accept it, is to grow some food for yourself. Below are a dozen suggestions on how to grow food at home and get hence more involved in the processes of nature by eating it.

Seed Sprouts

Hands down the simplest way to grow-your-own is to bring healthy and nutritious seed sprouts in your kitchen. Anyone can grow sprouting seeds such as radish, alfalfa, mung beans, lentils, quinoa, wheat, aduki beans or chickpeas. Mixed packs are readily available from health food shops, as are small stacker trays for home growing. They can even be grown in a jar with a draining top.

Sprouted seeds contain a powerhouse of nutrients with high concentrations of essential enzymes, proteins, minerals, trace elements and natural vitamins. They also have an excellent fibrous value that helps to regulate the digestion and is kind to the intestines. Because they grow right up to the moment they are harvested there are very few nutrients lost – fresh food straight from the kitchen.

Sprouted seeds are delicious in sandwiches, salads, stir fries, soups, stews and dips. My personal favourites are sprouted Fenugreek seeds, a sublime taste! I love the connection to nature they give me. I put a sprinkling of these tiny seeds into a ‘sieve jar’ then water them and watch them grow – often into four whole jar loads. Tahini and Fenugreek sandwiches are my favourite use for them but you can sprinkle them on pretty much anything – in fact we call them ‘sprinkles’ at home!

You may notice that you sometimes get a better harvest by planting them ‘with the moon’ or ‘biodynamic gardening’, but that’s a different subject!

Bottle Garden

Just on a note of interest, David Latimer planted his bottle garden with hardy spiderworts in 1960. He last watered it in 1972 and then bunged it up with a greased cork, sealing it from the outside.

The plant inside has grown to fill the 10 gallon Carboy container with the only input to the system being light from a window. The bottle garden and plant has recycled air, nutrient and water since then in its own ecosystem, surviving for over 50 years in its own world!

A bottle garden needs light such an internal windowsill but it can work just as well outside. Make sure the plants get a mix of sun and shade as they are very sensitive, especially at seedling stage. They can bolt or rot, catch all sorts of things and don’t rule out pests even inside a bottle!

To make a simple recycled-plastic, bottle garden, cut three-quarters of the way round a large plastic bottle about 4 inches up from the base. Make some drainage holes in the bottom and put in a layer of gravel and some seed compost. Works well for planting small lettuce and rocket seeds. Put the top of the upcycled bottle back on the base to create a personal greenhouse for the plant. You can also use this process to bring on seeds early for planting out, but watch it doesn’t get too wet or too dry inside. There are many types of bottle garden.

Window Box

If there isn’t a drainage system built into your window box, make sure it has holes and that the leakage isn’t going to damage anything in the building like the sills or leak back underneath the window frames when you water. Put it up (safely) on a couple of blocks to help drainage and protect sills from being permanently damp, also to deter snails. Put down a layer of pebbles or small stones inside the box to aid water dispersal, otherwise your box will be prone to rot and mould. For best results use a 50/50 mix of loam and coir compost without added insecticide. Fill to two-thirds with compost.

Plant or transplant your seedlings or plants to the box and top up with compost, leaving about an inch for watering. If you can get some bark chippings, put them around the plants once they show. This will slow down evaporation and prevent weeds seeding into your box. Give them plenty of growing room, about three herbs to a two-foot long box. Keep it watered and pest/weather free and you should be cropping within three months. You can even set-up a watering system for these. Great for small, early salad greens and kitchen herbs.

Gardening in pots

Even the smallest garden can accommodate a few pots of herbs. The key is to create the right conditions for each. Do the plants you choose prefer sun or shade? Do they like it damp or dry, hot or cool? What about the soil PH? Part of the joy of growing with nature is finding out how to position and nurture each type of plant.

There are many cheap imported pots available from garden centres now and pots can be used indoors as well as outdoors. They are suitable for small patios, balconies and safe rooftop locations although they are likely to need constant watering on a roof. Automated watering systems are pretty easy to make though and solar power is ideal to power the pump as when the sun shines, the plants need watering the most. You can even drip feed using water pressure from a water butt. The pots shown in the picture are left-over chimney liners!

Edible plants that are easily grow in pots include: lemon, strawberry, blueberry, columnar apple varieties, mulberry, passion fruit, tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumber, potatoes, carrots, radish, beetroot, spinach, lettuce, parsley, basil, oregano, chives or spring onions.

Upside Down Gardens

Another great use for recycling containers is to make upside-down hanging-gardens. Simply cut off the base of the bottle and pierce it 4 times so you can hang it upside-down. Carefully insert a young tomato, pepper or strawberry plant through what was the ‘top’ of the bottle and add compost around the roots, pressing it down firmly enough so that the plant does not fall out. Then hang it up and water through what was the base of the bottle.

You can also use buckets for this technique to get a larger crop, hanging them to suspend large tomato or cucumber crops, eggplants or beans.

Some flowers also respond well to this ‘soil on top’ reversal. It has many advantages in a small space and eliminates the need for bending down to tend or harvest the plants. It makes feeding and watering a lot easier. With miniature tomatoes for example, you can feed directly from the bush just with your mouth!

Hanging Basket

Get some moss that is farmed specifically for the purpose from a garden centre. Soak it in water and arrange it around your hanging basket. Fill the basket to about a third with the same seed compost mix mentioned above. Please consider getting your own home composting system or wormery if you haven’t already.

Gently but firmly, ease the root bases of your plants through the side-wires and moss into the basket. Tuck the moss back around the stem of the plants to stop water seepage. Nearly fill the basket and place other top plants into the compost. Leave enough space on the top so that the water can disperse. Firm it down and give it a good soaking. If it ever dries out too much, take it down and dunk the whole thing in water for a while. If you are lucky – this home herb store can last as long as three years.

Recommended minimal herb box/basket contents for Northern Hemisphere include: Oregano, Sage, Parsley, Thyme, Mint.

Other useful herbs suitable for baskets and boxes, pots and containers include: Borage, Chamomile, Chives, Coriander, Coriander, Curry plant, Lemon balm, Lemon verbena, Mixed mints, Mixed sages, Mixed thymes, Nasturtium, Pot marigold, Rosemary, Salad burnet, Savoury, Tarragon.

Rooftop Box

If you want to go a bit larger than pots, its quite simple to make (cat proof) mini-gardens from single sheets of 8 x 4 foot marine ply.

I inset the base to allow it to dry out underneath and before spring will jigsaw the base to improve aeration and drill holes to allow water seepage. I also made the back a little higher to install mirror tiles and improve the light for plants at the front. Although this will weigh quite heavy when it has about 10 inches of soil in the bottom I am also fixing it with batons to the outside wall to make it wind-proof for safety.

This rooftop box can be covered with polythene or the like to bring-on seedlings, and covered with chicken wire to stop cats using it as a toilet. I used the one shown to grow a selection of early spring greens.

Rock Beds

If, like me, you have a garden that appears to be full of rocks, why not use them to build some raised rock beds?

I built the ones shown in the photo over a few weeks, doing a bit every now and then. I ordered in a ton of topsoil and filled them, after putting rock rubble in the bottom to improve drainage.

Every year I add a bit of humus or leaf mould to get the soil fertility up. They’re great for growing veg. And you don’t have to bend too far. I also have some larger slabs of granite as you might imagine, living on the edge of Bodmin Moor. I have used these to raise a small wall and create an easily accessible bed.

Wall Beds

If you have a wall that gets the sun you can build a raised bed using cement blocks, bricks or wood.

The one shown here was an L shaped block wall with the addition of a few more blocks one end and a front made from a piece of reinforced concrete from a knocked down garage. Some people like to use old railway sleepers, stacked up for a retaining wall.

Tyre Stacks

OK so some of you will find this technique of making a raised bed visually undesirable, but it is particularly effective and a great bit of recycling.

Tyre stacks work well for potatoes, squash, courgettes, broad beans, I’ve even grown some whopping marrows in them. The tyre walls absorb the rays of the sun and warm up the soil, which helps stimulate the roots of the plant. The inside of the tyres hold water pockets so that the roots can drink from each tyre.

The soil subsides over the season and may need topping up to avoid creating hiding places for slugs and snails under the tyre rims. Watering, feeding, tending the plants and harvesting are all made easier with the elevation. It is also a good way of breaking-in new ground in as it suppresses the weeds in the soil under the tyres. To be honest though – there have been reservations about chemicals leeching from the tyres into the soil and hence produce.

Stick and Carpet Beds

The  previous image shows a raised bed made from materials found around the house and garden.

I hammered some hazel sticks from the hedge into the ground. Then others were used to weave around the sticks. The top was levelled off with some 2×1 batton. I then lined the bed with old carpet,  nailed to the inside to retain the soil which I screened by hand from around the garden.

Later I added some metal hoops from fencing wire and some bubble wrap in which my partner’s canoe was delivered. The bed lasted for 4 years. Allied to the above, I built a retaining wall on a 45 degree slope from a few tannalised garden stakes, added hazel branches, some leftover plywood and black plastic sheeting. I then collapsed the slope into the wall and levelled the garden out. It is accessible from the front ad a raised bed and last year it grew some big pumpkins. This year it has squashes because our deep freeze still has loads of pumpkin soup (a largeish pumpkin makes about 30 portions!)

Vertical Gardening

This has become all the rage in cities, but to an extent people have always grown things up screens at least. Vertical wall gardening has now become an architectural feature in the greening of urban spaces.

‘Le Mur Vegetal’ first coined by Patrick Blanc can be seen all over the place. Specially designed (and expensive) modules exist to suspend, water and feed plants grown vertically.

Vegetable walls exist on practical as well as aesthetic levels such as that in the photograph shown of a Gutter Garden.

Mini Greenhouse

You can easily purchase ‘shelf system’ mini greenhouses at garden centre’s or online and these fit conveniently into small, outside spaces. Herbs and easy vegetables such as tomatoes, courgettes or peppers are successfully grown, protected from the vagaries of wind, weather and pest.

Given a bit of construction though and some polytunnel liner, you can build a growing room to fit your space. Once you have a space to grow you will need to decide what to grow. If you are in a box-scheme for food and vegetable deliver, ask what their plans are for the year ahead so that you don’t replicate, unless you enjoy giving food away.

Food security

There is a saying ‘We are never more than 4 days away from chaos’. Imagine, all the supermarkets empty, no fuel available. People are getting hungry; what are they going to do? If you have made yourself a beautiful garden full of food, it is going to be ripped up and eaten by whoever is stronger than you. If you live in the countryside a much more secure way of planting is ‘guerrilla gardening’. You plant stuff all over the place – where people are unlikely to see it or even recognise it as food. There are many perennial edibles available to help you turn your local environment into a permaculture food forest.

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