The last five years has seen a surge in interest in grow your own veg. Spurred on by celebrity chefs and TV gardeners, we have been encouraged to convert our window boxes to herb planters and to replace our lawns with raised beds. The carrot that is dangled before our eyes is a cook’s paradise – a ready supply of organic, local, seasonal veg. Why wouldn’t you?
The problem for me starts with organic. A holistic, long term approach to farming is clearly good, and I’m right behind it, but the health benefits lauded by some ambassadors for organic have been firmly debunked and when you factor in the high levels of wastage that organic crops produce, the case for organic is further weakened. For me certified organic is well intentioned but a step too far.
Seasonal and local are important benefits, but increasingly veg markets and supermarkets are recognising this to, so for many of us the season/local benefit can be achieved without growing your own. Even more so if you’re lucky enough to live close to a good farmers market, albeit that they frequently charge a kings ransom. Having said that, the high prices charged by some farmers markets seem reasonable when you factor in the real cost of growing your own veg all those seeds that never germinated, seedlings that fell foul of the slugs and over sized courgettes that one minute were almost ready for picking and the next were over sized truncheons.
So why grow your own if you can buy seasonal veg locally? Does it taste better? Well yes sometimes, but by no means always. An onion is an onion is an onion, whether its home grown or not. The same goes for squashes, leeks, parsnips and maincrop potatoes. But there are those vegetables, fewer than half I would say, that do taste better straight from the garden. Peas and sweetcorn picked when just ripe and dropped into the pan of boiling water before the sugars turn to starch are sensational. Outdoor cherry tomatoes picked while still warmed by the sun and popped straight into your mouth are unbelievable. And new potatoes lifted when no larger than a walnut knock the best local new potatoes into a cocked hat.
So there are real taste benefits of growing your own, at least for some vegetables, but at least as important for me is the immense pleasure to be had from growing unusual heritage varieties and experimenting. The supermarkets have got better at offering a wider choice of varieties, but their tomatoes are still round and red, their beetroot is still purple and their carrots are all orange. There is part of me that is relieved. It might be a slap on the cheek for grow your own enthusiasts if supermarkets started selling four colour tomatoes, four coloured beetroot and four coloured carrots, as they do with heirloom varieties in the US. But the truth is there would still be plenty of other reasons to grow your own, reasons not trumpeted by the celebrities and reasons the supermarkets can never satisfy. The exhilaration of battling with nature, of nurturing baby seedlings and of excavating muddy root crops. For me, this is the real joy of growing your own veg and why I think it’s a trend that’s here to stay.