Grow Your Own Edible Garden

Bestselling cookbook author Melissa Hemsley tells the story of her Grow-It-Yourself-Summer:

It’s 2018 and it’s cool to care!  We are more than curious: we demand to know where our food comes from and what we’re putting in our bodies. Food brands and supermarkets have to be honest with us or we’ll go elsewhere and it’s not just about what’s in it, it’s where it came from too. Any good restaurant menu will tell you where the meat comes from; namecheck their dairy farmers; shout out their veg suppliers; the veg is seasonally appropriate and what’s more, there’s loads of it on the menu now. Not a token steamed broccoli or green salad side, veg now has its place rightfully at the heart of the plate.

This was my first summer of Growing My Own.  Thanks to the once-in-a-decade baking British sunshine, I have successfully grown an edible garden patch and I have adored lazily planning my dinners by looking out the window and seeing what was bountiful and needed eating up.

Like home cooking, growing veg fell out of fashion for a while.  But reasons to grow your own are many: it keeps us connected to our food and therefore our bodies; gardening is (relatively) easy when you keep it simple so its a chance to get good at something (a hobby! remember those!?) and many of us find it incredibly meditative and therapeutic.

Another added bonus, muddy hands or hands overflowing with tomatoes can’t hold a phone! And I’m always happiest without a phone in hand.

Not only is GYO mega satisfying – my tomatoes homegrown in Leytonstone taste like they’ve been sunbathing in Spain – but  it means you’re cutting down on plastic packaging; it’s a brilliant way to get kids into cooking; everybody into eating more vegetables and it reminds us of the value of our food to reduce thoughtless waste.

And of course the bees! They urgently need us and bees love gardens. They adore the beautiful flowers of sage, thyme and lavender, herbs which smell divine; are great for cooking and they grow with zero fuss.

I bought my first place with my boyfriend 2 years ago – a Victorian wreck in East London that we have been slowly, lovingly and somewhat painfully renovating.. It was inhabitable for a year with a concrete jungle garden that was totally inaccessible until – the joy – this Spring. When we  got our hands on it we put out a few big planters (made of recycled milk jugs by a cool company called Surface Matter),  and filled them with small, low maintenance plants (see our hit list below) that flourished easily and within a few months was giving us a happy return on our (small) investment.

A balcony, window boxes and pots on window sills are perfect for growing too (pick the window that gets bathed in the most light).  On a balcony, get containers for chard and kale and for windows, go for salad mixes – rocket, chicory and gem lettuces, plus all your favourite herbs.  Don’t forget hanging baskets work wonderfully too.

If you’re new to all this as I was, go round to a friend’s garden for a few hours and gather some tips and cuttings. Google your local allotment, pop down and volunteer on someone’s patch for a morning, you’ll make new friends in your community and come home armed with skills for life and hopefully a bounty of veg and some inspiration to get started.

So – getting started… there’s no need to be put off by fancy tools or the thought of lots of time and commitment, all you need is a trowel and some containers with drainage.  I’ve seen urban gardens with veg growing out of old boots, old dungarees, pans, the works! You’ll also want some quality compost – look out for organic and peat free. My friend and gardening guruAnna Greenland (ex Raymond Blanc and Soho Farmhouse) recommends Melcourt and Mr Muck which delivers well rotted horse manure that you can plant straight into. Mushroom compost and Maxicrop organic seaweed feed are easy to buy in bulk bags to fill raised beds. You could also try making your own nettle and comfrey feeds and make your own compost. Or how about a wormery to add some nutrient rich worm tea to your pots!?

To inspire your greenfingers, try my mint and lemon verbena iced tea recipe.

Ok first things first, as a first time grower, here are my Top 5 success stories from Summer 2018 (save this list for your Spring 2019 planning).

  1. Cherry Tomatoes – I’ve made gallons of tomato, garlic & basil sauces for the freezer.
  2. Chillies & Peppers – I’ve roasted some chillies and turned into chilli oil; dried some out; pickled the rest. The peppers I’ve been grilling and making muhammara (walnut & pepper dip, your new hummus!)
  3. Mint & Basil – I’ve made pestos galore and frozen them in batches knowing I’ll love to see them again come winter.  All the mint has been perfect for rounds of mojitos and minty garlic yoghurts for BBQs.
  4. Squash & Courgettes –  my courgettes have been rampant this summer and I’ll be cutting my first winter squash this weekend and curing it for a few weeks in the kitchen for the flavour to develop. For recipe inspiration try my squash soup with crispy sage.
  5. Chives & Rocket – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed not having to peel & chop many onions the summer; just simply snipping chives into my cooking and topping salads with the beautiful chive flowers. And there’s been no need to buy salads as I’ve been harvesting rocket straight from my pots.
  6.  Lavender – bees love lavender (they are most attracted to blue and purple flowers) and lavender grows easily, looks beautiful and smells delicious – use it for teas and baking: lemon drizzle cake with lavender is gorgeous as is lavender in roast lamb.