Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The price of everything and the value of nothing?

Shouldn't that sky signal good weather?
A few days ago, The Other Half joshed that any harvest from the potager this year will prove to be the most expensive vegetables in history.

Eee. You can tek the boy outta Yorkshire …

It’s tempting to open a log of exactly what is being spent and when. And then, presumably, all produce could be weighed as it is harvested and costed against, say, top-end, organic, ‘flavoursome’ supermarket prices.

But although I almost got as far as creating a new Excel spreadsheet, I stopped myself in time. Phew!

To do that would be to fall into a trap. Which is not to say that it isn’t an interesting question.

I’m fortunate enough not to have had to count the pennies that have been ploughed into both the patio and the potager thus far.

Some of it – such as the initial clearance of the patio a year ago last November – needed to be spent simply in order to make the place reasonably tidy. Indeed, the whole process didn’t start with my having any plans beyond a few pots for herbs.

And maybe a tomato or two, a few chillies and strawberries, and some more decorative additions.

I hold my hands up to one or two indulgences – the Burgon and Ball greenhouse tidy and the seed tin are a bit like designer handbags for gardeners. It could have been done much cheaper, but even I have my girly moments.

Having said that, it’s been astonishing to discover that there are entire ranges of pastel gardening attire for women – but I shall be remaining proudly scruffy. In the last week or so, indeed, my ancient, baggy cotton roll neck sweater, which was on its way to the bin, has found a new lease of life as perfect gear for pottering around outside in rather nippy conditions.

So there’s little likelihood of my prancing around in floral pink, à la Margot Leadbetter. Actually, there’s less than little – there’s none.

But the bulk of the expenditure has been invested straight into growing, and largely into food production.

Compost, the growhouse and good tools have been this year’s big buys. Only the other day I saw a tweet from Monty Don with a picture of the new garden that he’s working on.

Did I mention peas, beans and radishes?
It sent me into raptures – not simply because it looked enchanting, but because the state of my soil looks not far removed from the bare, unplanted areas in the picture. Which I am taking to mean that, gradually, I am meaningfully improving the texture beyond the claggy clay that, while rich with worms, was insanely dense, particularly when wet.

I arguably made errors with buying trays and pots and propagators, but this is a learning curve and that will mean mistakes.

The point though, is that the money is an investment.

Already, I have 10 (out of 10!) peas growing in a propagator in the growhouse – you may have realised already that I am absurdly proud of this.

That, plus five out of five broad beans and even – whisper it quietly and with fingers crossed – one runner bean slowly emerging into light. There are plenty of radishes too and even – finally – a first hint of a spring onion.

And all this while the weather resolutely remains ‘changeable’: London saw intermittent flurries of snow on Monday and, while yesterday was much brighter, the fearsome wind might have been blasting straight in from the Russian steppe. Today, we managed a crazy mixture of snow, sleet and hail at one point.

But unlike last year, there is a plan – and it is not to have a few vegetables, but to have as many as possible.

March marks the first anniversary of my gardening project. This time last year we had a week-long heatwave, during which I basked outside in a sleeveless t-shirt, potting away like nobody’s business and starting a tan.

And then, when I’d pretty much filled the available space, I realised that it wasn’t enough: I wanted more.

It wasn’t until May that I placed my first order for seeds to sow in the first small bit of carpark flower bed that I had cleared – and those were selected almost entirely on the basis of what could still be planted at that time of year, with an expectation of harvest before the growing season ended.

The damp and gloomy summer intervened to drastically reduce crops – and I never tried any successional sowings – but the bug had bitten. And the more I do, the more I get a great sense of wellbeing from doing it, together with a great sense of achievement when anything actually works.

Have I mentioned my baby peas?

So how do you calculate the worth of that? Or of the exercise I get while doing this stuff – it’s cheaper than gym fees!

But the most crucial matter has been that of taste.

Otto exploring the potager.
Chives first: not a herb I have use a great deal, but when I have, it costs 80p to a pound for far more than you need and will use. So planting some in a small pot seemed sensible.

The first time I snipped off a few green stalks, I blended them into butter to serve with some fish. This was the first taste revelation.

The sorrel too, with its powers of recovery, was another real discovery – wonderful shredded in an omelette.

But the next real taste revelation came as the strawberries ripened.

The tomatoes were not such a shock to the system, as we’d learned what good tomatoes can taste like from the market in Collioure.

But the runner beans – crisp and with a precise ‘snap’ – were another taste revelation.

And at the end of my limited growing season, when in complete defiance both of the persistent gloom and the seed packet notes on how long they would take to grow, I was finally able to harvest a handful of small turnips.

The taste … oh my, the taste!

So the ultimate reason, the one big reason that draws me on, is taste and knowing that, even as a complete ingénue in cultivational terms, is that I can grow food that tastes better than anything that I could hope to buy in a supermarket and even than much of what I can buy anywhere, if for no other reason than that it is fresh, fresh, fresh.

And the value of that freshness to taste simply cannot be overstated.

Increasingly, there is another motive too – and that is the desire to have increased control over my food in the sense of how it is grown – whether pesticides and assorted chemicals are used and are then passed on to me, for instance.

With that comes a feeling that it is good to grow in a way that does no harm to the environment – and perhaps even benefits it.

If nothing else, that very freshness means a lower carbon footprint.

There are still things that I will be buying in the coming weeks – the biggest strawberry planter that I can get my hands on for starters, plus I’m working out the feasibility of a compost bin, since there is only very limited room. This too would save money and cut waste even further.

The cost question is a useful exercise – not least because it does offer the opportunity to rethink how much you spend on food and how much is wasted – see that packet of shop-bought chives.

And if we could measure taste on a scale of some sort and then factor that into the equation, I’d be prepared to wager that my gardening exploits will be saving money by next year at the latest.

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