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Self-sufficiency - December 2013

Many visitors say to me, 'You must be self-sufficient for your veg'. It's a reasonable enough assumption. After all, my vegetable garden is enormous, and I am lucky enough to have two greenhouses and a polytunnel, as well as a separate orchard. But the answer is 'err, no'. Partly this is deliberate strategy, partly it is simple lack of skill.

Now I've been growing vegetables for more than 25 years, and I'm not bad at it, but moving up from supplementing one's diet on an allotment to aiming to produce most of one's food on a large plot is a serious step, and requires a great deal more skill and organization than I have had. You often read in the gardening media how simple growing veg is - 'anyone can grow tomatoes' kinds of articles. Well it is, and it isn't.

Anyone can sow some lettuce seeds and produce some great salad. It's easy. It is also possible to grow salad all year round, especially with an unheated greenhouse available. Standard garden-lore will tell you to sow successionally - sow lettuce every three weeks for a constant supply. But that's not true. Before the longest day seedlings will catch each other up and you will get a glut. After the longest day the opposite will occur, and a three-week sowing window will produce huge gaps in supply. Some types of lettuce grow best in spring and just bolt in hot weather, others prefer late summer. Only a few varieties will stand frost or grow in mid winter. And if you pick lettuce correctly, you don't need to keep sowing anyway, because you can make the same plant crop for weeks (see Charles Dowding's excellent book on growing salads for the full skinny on the subject, which is where I learned all I know on the subject). And that's just the lettuce! Extend this to the full range of vegetables and you can see why researching and organizing information has been one of the major challenges. Growing veg is easy, but there's a big difference between growing some veg, and growing a wide range of consistently good veg year-round.

It's not just the growing either. Like most people of my generation I've grown up with supermarkets, with a 'what do I fancy eating' kind of a meal plan, making a shopping list from a recipe and taking it to the shop. It's quite an adjustment to complete the changeover to a 'what can I do with cauli today?' approach. For many people, growing veg involves returning to traditional British vegetables - carrots, leeks, cabbages - and a traditional approach to eating them as well - boiled on the side of meat, usually. Now I'm not a big fan of boiled vegetables, and my cooking repertoire is mostly Mediterranean and Asian, so I have had to learn, and am still learning, new ways of cooking vegetables - spicy swede chips, broad bean felafels and carrot curry! There is a growing movement towards growing more interesting and exotic fruit and vegetables, which I am all in favour of, but not to be forgotten are more interesting ways of dealing with traditional produce. In addition to all this, of course, there is the whole subject of preserving veg by freezing, bottling, chutneys, pickles and jams to be conquered, and so I am not expecting to be pronouncing myself an expert any time soon.

That said, my lack of self-sufficiency is part strategy. Most of us when we start to grow veg attempt to replicate what we find in the supermarkets - carrots, onions, potatoes and so on. However, not only are these cheap and widely available, but they are also not very easy to grow to the same standard as professional growers. It's not actually true that, just because something is home-grown, it is automatically better! For me it makes sense to use my limited resources (and we all have limitations of space, time or cash) to extend the range of my diet. Primates closely related to humans have diets comprising hundreds of varieties of plant foods, and it seems probable that humans evolved to run on a similarly diverse diet, against which the couple of dozen varieties commercially available seems a bit, well, poor. And so I grow, first, the un-buyable, from allotment staples like runner and broad beans, to salsify, oca and mulberries. I sometimes don't know what to do with them in the kitchen, but that's a problem for another day!

Next on the list come the expensive luxuries I can't afford to buy, chief of which are asparagus and globe artichokes. This category also includes most fruit, from raspberries to quinces, and this group also has the bonus of being mostly low-maintenance perennials.

Following this come plants that deliver a real bonus with freshness - sweetcorn, for example, baby new carrots and new potatoes. Only after this do I contemplate growing cheap staples like leeks, parsnips and cabbages. Maincrop potatoes, carrots and onions are just not worth the space, labour and pest and disease problems to me, and I foresee continuing to buy them in. I also can't see me mastering growing oranges and bananas any time soon, although at least a few lemons are a possibility, and I can't see me giving them up either, or giving up midwinter tomatoes or sweet peppers altogether for that matter, however guilty a pleasure they may be.

So, no, I'm not self-sufficient yet and probably never will be, but boy do we eat well! Marsh samphire and cherry tomato salad anyone?