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Image / Editorial

Want to start growing your own food this weekend? The experts tell you how

by Jennifer McShane
11th Apr 2020

A brand new series of Grow Cook Eat recently began its seven-week prime time run on RTE 1. The show is anchored at the home of GIY, at GROW HQ in Waterford City and each week the TV show sees presenters Michael Kelly and Karen O’Donohoe travel to meet and visit expert food producers, chefs, and innovative community food projects all across the country. From plot to plate to waste, Grow Cook Eat shows that simple, everyday food actions can make a powerful lifestyle change. Here the pair share their top tips on how your household can get started – so you can have food growing in your back garden well before the summer

What’s the first thing you need to know before you go about getting ready to grow your own food?

It’s not as hard as it might sound, so don’t be afraid. The good news is that all seeds want to grow, and they already know how to do it and what they want to become. So more than likely, with just sunlight and water, they will grow. Sowing a seed is an act of profound optimism and your attitude should be no different.

What must you have, tools-wise, before you begin?

On a basic level, all you need are seeds and something to grow them in. That means some good compost and something to put the compost in. For smaller-scale growing that could be seed trays, pots, containers, or even an upcycled colander or an old pair of wellies. At this scale, the only other tool you really need is your hands, and you’ll be amazed to see how much you can grow like this. On a slightly bigger scale, clear some space in your back garden for a timber raised bed. If you’re ambitious enough for this you might need to buy some basic tools – a trowel, spade, fork, hoe and rake.

What are the biggest misconceptions when it comes to growing your own food at home?

The three biggest barriers we find that people experience are a lack of space, time and confidence. At GIY we like to argue that these barriers are misconceptions. You don’t need a huge garden to grow some of your own food and you will be just as proud of the food you grow on a windowsill, balcony or patio as what you might grow on an acre. Like any hobby, it can take up as much or as little time as you want it to, and the hardest part of all is getting started. Because the plants do all the hard work, you’ll be shocked at how good you are.

Do you have to have extreme knowledge of food before getting started? 

Green fingers are a myth. Growing food is not an innate talent but a skill to be learned like any other. One of the great things about growing food is that you have plenty of time to learn as you go because you can’t rush the process. The first thing you need to be able to do is put a seed into a pot of soil. Then you have a month or so to figure out the next step as you water your plants and watch them turn into baby seedlings. You’ll be so attached to them by then that you’ll do whatever it takes for the next step, and so it goes until you’re ready to harvest.

What should we start growing first, if we’re new to it?

You can grow a serious array of interesting salad leaves in pots or trays pretty much all year round indoors. Focus on quick-growing leaves like cress, rocket, pak choi, mustard, or mizuna. Or grow peas to eat as shoots in a salad or stir-fry. Grow dwarf varieties of veg like French beans and tomatoes. Chilli peppers are compact little plants that do very well indoors. Potatoes grow surprisingly well in containers. Fill a big black sack with soil and give it a try!

Don’t forget, this is about food rather than gardening. It’s about nutrition, well-being and living sustainably. The point of all this should be to cook and eat the food you grow, so make sure you grow food that you love to eat.

Give five simple tips for growing your own food at home.

Karen O’Donohoe and Michael Kelly. Photo by Colin Shanahan

1. Small is beautiful – starting small with 4 or 5 different types of veg is a brilliant way to start your GIY journey. Quick growing salad leaves are great to get a quick success under your belt to fire up your enthusiasm.

2. Think about the joys of GIYing throughout the experience – the mindfulness of sowing the seeds, the joy of seeing them germinate for the first time, and then the pleasure of eating them.

3. Don’t worry if stuff goes wrong. What’s the worst that can happen? You plant your seeds too deep and nothing grows. Bounce right back and try again.

4. It’s all about the soil – remember, healthy soil equals healthy veg equals healthy you. This is particularly true of anything that takes longer than 6 weeks to grow. Get your hands on good quality potting compost and don’t forget to feed the plants when they get bigger.

5. Share the journey with other GIYers. It’s more fun that way and if you run into trouble you’re bound to find someone who’s solved that problem before. The GIY social channels are a great place to start if you’re the first GIYer among your friends and family.

How popular is growing your own food at home in Irish households currently?

Judging by the surge in interest we’ve seen in recent weeks, it looks like it’s never been more popular. We’re biased of course, but it’s the best thing we can think of doing in these very difficult times. GIYing gets you outdoors, out of your head and into your hands, and gives you something very special to look forward to. Aside from current circumstances, food growing has been getting increasingly popular, especially among younger people who have become more and more concerned with the environmental impact of food production. Growing some of your own not only improves the carbon footprint of your diet, but it’s also a gateway to eating a more local, seasonal and plant-based diet as it gives you a different perspective on where food comes from.

GROW COOK EAT airs each Wednesday evening at 8.30 pm on RTE1 from March 18th until April 29th