As the coronavirus pandemic tightens its grip, the economic harm inflicted worsens. Empty shelves brought about by panic buying are likely to give way to a new reality: people struggling to afford their grocery bill.
If that seems a tad pessimistic, the good news is any of us can trim the cost of our food shopping by growing at least some of what we eat. A trusted handful of failsafe crops should stretch strained budgets a little further, helping us cope during these uncertain times.
How to Start Growing
It doesn’t matter how much space you have to grow. Both a dedicated vegetable garden and a ragtag collection of pots and tubs can give a steady supply of fresh produce for the kitchen. What does matter is light, so ensure your growing area receives plenty of sunshine and is sheltered from prevailing winds. Most vegetables sulk in the shade, but there are still some that cope and even thrive.
Give plants the best possible start. Always sow or plant into weed-free, fertile soil or potting compost. Garden compost is a great panacea for all soil-based woes – it can help sandy soils hold moisture for longer and opens up heavy clay soils prone to winter waterlogging and baking hard in summer. And all while adding nutrients to the soil so it can better support the crops grown in it.
Fast and Reliable Crops to Grow
If your intention is to save money, deciding what to grow should be relatively straightforward. Choose crops you like to eat, concentrating on those that are costlier to buy. Crops must be reliable – guaranteeing harvests really matters when every morsel counts. Select crops that are easy to grow and, because you don’t want to be hanging around, ones that are quick too.
Everyone has their favourites. Here are mine, chosen for their consistent performance and speed. All of them can be sown or planted right now, so there’s no time to lose.
1. Salad Leaves
Salad leaves such as lettuce are quick off the blocks and, when harvested by cutting just a few leaves at a time from each plant, they should continue to give fresh leaves for many weeks. Space lettuces in a block formation so that plants are about 22cm (9in) apart in both directions. Or try a salad mix and sample several different flavours and textures from a single sowing.
Courgettes are famously prolific, which is a good thing if you’re looking to save money. Grow more than one to ensure good pollination; a couple of plants should easily keep a small family in fruits all summer. Pick them fairly small when they are about 10cm (4in) long for a firm texture and slightly nutty taste. Check plants regularly because fruits tucked out of sight beneath the large leaves have a habit of ballooning into oversized, watery marrows in a matter of days.
Dwarf beans are great for pots or to follow on from other crops such as early potatoes. Sow them up to midsummer. Climbing beans need some form of support and for sheer good looks you can’t beat a teepee made from hazel or willow poles, though bamboo canes look pretty fab too. Like courgettes, it’s essential that beans are picked as soon as they are ready to encourage more to follow.
Fresh beetroot seems inexplicably pricy to me. Yet growing these earthy, pungent (in a good way!) roots is really very straightforward. Keep plants watered in dry weather to stop them from bolting, when plants produce a flowering stem before the crop is ready to harvest. Beetroot is incredibly versatile in the kitchen, which is one reason they make my list. Roast the roots, pickle them, grate them into salad, or even use them as an ingredient in cakes.
Chard is like spinach, just easier. Oh – and you effectively get two crops for the effort of one: highly nutritious leaves and crunchy, often colourful stems, which I like to griddle then serve with a pinch of sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil. Just like most salad leaves you can pick a few leaves at a time, as needed, leaving plants to continue cropping for several months.
Spring is a great time to plant strawberries, which are now available in pots or packs. Strawberries grow well in open ground or good-sized containers, but hanging baskets and strawberry planters are hard to keep watered. Plant a mix of early, mid and late-season varieties to extend your harvest period, and apply a liquid tomato feed during throughout the summer to promote fruit development.
Everyone’s different and your preferred crops may differ from mine. What crops do you consider quick, easy and money-saving?