grow it cook it preserve it eat it wendy pillar blog gardener grow your own in dorset

Marvellous roots - December 2015

Every now and then I have a push towards self-sufficiency, usually driven by the continuing high food bill when I spend so much time growing food. I have given up trying to grow meat since an organic smallholding in the next village does such a good job, and now they do eggs too, I'm taking a break from keeping hens. Fruit and veg I'm pretty much self-sufficient in, and I'm not about to embark on a cheese-making career, but that leaves the carb staples still coming from the supermarket.

I haven't tried growing wheat, although there's no reason why you can't, but this year I tried growing seeds and pulses in bulk, along with tubers, to try to fill this gap. Now quinoa and amaranth are easy as can be to grow, but threshing and winnowing the grain clean enough to eat is a lengthy and fiddly job, and keeping the birds off the amaranth is difficult. Chick peas, likewise, are easy to grow, but back-breaking to pick and fiddly to pod and lentils even more so. Imagine picking up individual lentils from the soil and peeling them and that is about right. The climbing beans like borlottis are a good crop - easy to grow, easy to pick and you can at least pod them in comfort in an armchair in front of a film. Once podded, they are easy to store and keep for a long time.

What becomes clear is that, for staple carbs, it's hard to beat a root crop, with pulses coming second and grains the least user-friendly. Potatoes, obviously, are a basic crop, easy to grow (apart from late blight), fairly easy to store and tasty. This year I grew Sarpo Mira. They are not the tastiest, but were absolutely trouble free to grow, without a trace of blight, and with giant spuds. So far they have stored with no problem and very few losses, so they are well worth it in terms of self-sufficiency.

The 'new' tuber crops have been a bit of a revelation. The yield from the yacon was massive, and the plants trouble-free to grow. They can be saved from year to year (unlike potatoes, which you have to buy in each year) and produce more plants each year. The yields from mashua and oca were very good too, with volunteer plants doing particularly well, volunteers not being a problem like they are with potatoes, because they are not as susceptible to disease. It takes a bit of adaptation in the kitchen to use these new crops, but they are all tasty and versatile, being good raw and cooked.

With all the roots, you get good yields with little work, a broad window for harvest and easy processing and storage. All of which begs the question why grains have become the staple carb of choice the world over. Mechanisation makes grain production easier, but they were dominant foods way before the combine harvester was invented. Surely every stage of growing, harvesting and storage is easier with a root crop than a grain crop? After all, you only need a tiny hole in your sack of wheat to lose the whole lot over a journey!

On Springwatch it was demonstrated that birds instinctively pick the food that gives them the most energy and best nutrition for the least work when presented with a range of familiar foods. There must have been some factor in grain foods, from wheat to rice to quinoa to maize to sorghum, that made them the most efficient and nutritious food options for early agricultural humans. They can be stored for a very long time, of course, not just for one winter, which might have been a factor, or perhaps it is the ease with which grains can be turned into alcohol that is the missing link!

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