Living on a budget is a problem affecting many families these days, not just in the UK, but all over the world. Food prices are rising while income is falling. Taxation is rising as countries – especially in the euro zone – try to balance their budgets and extract more and more cash from the people so that governments can balance their books. This is evident in the recent fiscal changes imposed by governments in the UK, Greece, Germany, Spain, Ireland, France and Portugal.
We have already discussed some of the things we can do to help make savings on our food budget in our previous article, ‘Cooking on a budget’. In this article, we will look at how we can grow our own fruit and vegetables for the table and supply longer-term products through freezing and converting fresh fruit to preserves, such as jam, chutney and relishes. All these little ‘luxury items’ cost money. If we can make them ourselves, so much the better.
When we retired to Spain in 2003, we had all kinds of plans to become self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. It did not quite work out that way however as the soil was impoverished and the irrigation was non-existent. We have fruit trees all around us and grow oranges, tangerines, clementines, pears, figs, grapes, olives, lemons, meddlers, apples and quince. This gives us a long period of preparing jams, marmalades and chutney because the fruits mature at different times.
We found all the vegetables we tried to grow would either bolt or wither because of the immense heat during the summer growing periods. We could grow lettuce but had to use them very young because they tended to run to seed very quickly. No problem with that however, as young fresh lettuce leaves go great in any salad dish. Then we found out that if we planted in large plastic buckets we could move the plants around and place them under the trees for protection when it got too hot. The plastic bucket we use is actually a fruit picker’s basket made of strong flexible plastic about two feet across at the top and about two feet deep.
We found them ideal for growing all types of vegetables from potatoes to spring onions. Just one small hole in the base to prevent the soil from becoming waterlogged is all that is necessary. We pay about 2 euro’s for these containers – a fraction of the cost of plant pots. A brisk walk around the site with a 2 gallon watering can every morning supplies all the water that the plants need. You could use any type of container to grow your vegetables, from old boots to paint cans (just make sure that the paint is cleaned out and is non-toxic). Grow bags are excellent for tomatoes and runner beans, while hanging baskets and window boxes a great for herbs and even training tomatoes. Using these techniques, you can easily turn your backyard into a mini allotment producing all kinds of fruit and vegetables.
You can also take the ‘organic’ route by growing your vegetables this way. There are plenty of concentrated organic based fertilizers available that will help your plants thrive. A capful or two of the concentrate in a watering can once a week can do wonders to the size and taste of your crop.
Depending on the space available to you, these are just some of the plants that you can grow on a back yard:
Tomatoes. There are plenty of outdoor variants available now that don’t need a green house to produce plenty of good-sized, good flavoured fruits.. All you need is a large pot to plant your seed and provide a tall cane for the plant to climb. A tomato is a vine don’t forget, so it needs something to cling to. Give it plenty of water and a bit of organic fertilizer once the flowers appear and you are on your way. You can even wrap it with a sheet of polythene to create a greenhouse effect. It will love you for that and give you a better crop. Nip out the top of the plant at about six feet and also nip out the little side shoots that will appear at the joints of the branches. This will force all of the nourishment into the fruits rather than growing new side shoots. You can start your new plants off indoors in February and plant them out once there is no chance of frost. There are also training varieties that you can put in hanging baskets. When in fruit they look good as well as taste good.
Potatoes are the next good croppers for you to grow. We found that after a week or so, the bottom of a bag of potatoes contained at least half a dozen tubers that were starting to go to seed. Little green shoots appear with tiny furry roots probing out looking for water. This is exactly what you want and should not throw them away. Collect them and every two weeks set a new bucket away containing the seed potatoes. Put about an inch of peat or loamy soil in the bottom of the container. If you live in a rural area, you will have a goldmine of organic fertilizer available to you – need I say more! A covering of this valuable organic fertilizer – either cows or horses – will ensure that the seed potato has plenty of food to get it going. Cover the ‘fertilizer’ with another inch of peat or loam. Water well and set aside for a few weeks. Once the green shoots start to poke their way out of the soil, apply another couple of inches of soil. The new potatoes grow from nodes off the main stem, so the longer you force the stem to grow, the more potatoes you well get. It takes about 4 months from seeding to cropping. Depending on the space available to you, if you plant a new container every two weeks, after your four-month initial period, you will have a weekly supply of potatoes absolutely free of charge.
Onions are another good choice for container growing. Standard onions, spring onions, Paris onions, chives and shallots are all good choices for container growing. Onions need plenty of water and a regular supply to prevent them from bolting. All of the onions can be sown quite thickly and as they grow, thin them out and use the thinning’s in salads, soups and seasonings. You will be surprised at how quick onions grow.
Carrots are the next to look closely at. There are dozens of varieties available. If you have a deep container filled with soft peat with no stones in it, then the long varieties will produce a beautiful thick fully formed carrot about six inches long. It is the stones in soil that cause the deformities in carrots that make it look like a two legged creature. Soft, stone-less soil is the answer to long smooth exhibition quality carrots. You can also obtain short stubby carrots, which are ideal for container growing and are full of flavour. You can grow parsnips this way after the carrots have cropped and let the overwinter for spring cropping. The choice is yours. Stagger planting periods over three to four weeks to give you a continuous supply throughout the summer, One packet of seed will provide you with months of fresh carrots all through the summer and autumn.
Salads – lettuce comes in dozens of varieties and is very quick growing. A couple of packets of mixed lettuce seed will give you fresh salad greens right through the summer period. Three containers are all you need. Start one off in a April, one in May and another in June and you will have fresh salads all summer. Just take the outer leaves from the young plants and the plant will continue to produce new leaves for you. If you cannot get a packet of mixed lettuce, buy about four different varieties and mix all the seed together. That will ensure that each of your containers will produce a few varieties to choose from.
Herbs are ideally suited for container growing. All the popular varieties are very hardy and will grow almost anywhere. They also make very pretty green plants for display and fragrance. We grow rosemary, sage, parsley, lemon thyme, coriander, mint, lavender, and even ginger in containers. You will not be able to grow ginger in a country like the UK. We had great success this year because we had temperature in the 40’s+ in august. However, all the other herbs are easily grown all over Europe and the USA. Visit our herbs page for more advice on individual herbs
There are many other vegetables that can be grown on the container system; all depending on the space you have available to you. Beetroot, celery, turnips and parsnips can all be grown in containers but they all have different maturity periods and your planting times are more difficult to work out to give you regular supply. Nevertheless, it can be done with patience and practice.