Growing your own - some easier plants for the kitchen garden

Over the last few years, growing vegetables has turned from being a productive hobby to being a 'movement'. It can be fun and satisfying to eat the fruits of your labour, and it can symbolically 'connect' you with the earth in a very real way. On the other hand, it can be time-consuming, expensive and unrewarding. Advocates, with a missionary zeal, would have you believe that it's a whole way of life, a future of a free and bountiful supply of all-things-good - with a feel-good factor to boot. Cynics could argue that here in Ireland we have a wonderful culture of professional farmers and growers, most working on a fairly small scale, who can do efficiently what a hobby gardener can do only clumsily. Anyone who has witnessed a society where producing your own food is done out of necessity rather than desire will know that it doesn't make for an easy life. My friend Nicolae, who comes from rural Moldova, has shown us his former life of back-breaking toil in the fields, of periods of feast or famine. It's not easy.

A very productive and attractive vegetable and herb garden at Renvyle House Hotel in Connemara.

A productive and attractive kitchen garden in the grounds of Renvyle House Hotel, Connemara, Co Galway

Growing vegetables and edible plants can of course be very worthwhile. However, we don't need to 'get back to basics' to the extent that our gardens become utilitarian plots. In my opinion, the relentless propaganda about 'growing it yourself' sows as many seeds of disillusionment as it does of encouragement. Quite simply, it's not easy to grow your own vegetables. To grow them in meaningful quantities requires an awful lot of time, skill and resources, all of which one group in particular have: farmers and professional growers. For the average person for whom time, space and skill are limited, growing your own vegetables has the potential to end in failure or at least disillusionment. What the slugs don't get the catterpillers do. The soil is too wet - or is it too dry? This plant fell over just when it was about to do something and this one got spots and just sat there without growing. The spuds got eaten by slugs...... or was it blight that made them go all black? And the courgettes? Well, there were so many of them at the same time that they couldn't be given away.

The sale of all things for the vegetable garden, from seeds to tools, raised-bed kits to fertilisers is a huge industry. In the horticultural trade journals and garden shows it is identified as the main growth area (no pun intended) for garden centres and the retail trade in general. It's big business, and a cake which everyone wants a slice of, because growing your own is so open to failure - repeat sales of the same item time after time. The 'movement' is simultaneously puffed up by zealots using an ethical-moral-spiritual argument who want everyone else on the bandwagon with them. 

On the other hand, growing and cooking your own produce can be immensely satisfying, whether it's a few herbs, a row of lettuces or a patch of berries. It also has a huge symbolic value in an era that has removed us ever further from the true origins of food. It may not feed the family or get us through the year, but it teaches us the value of food and may give us an appreciation of the effort and skill that goes into its production. It's true, too, that what you grow yourself generally tastes better than what you buy - but that's the taste of pride, virtue and freshness.

The economic argument for growing your own vegetables is by no means straightforward. Based on the fact that labour is free, as it is your own, there is still the need for soil amendments and fertilisers, tool purchase or hire, possible boards for raised beds, nets, bamboos, seeds, new plants, rain barrels, cold-frames, greenhouses or polytunnels, wet-gear, books, sprays and powders, organic or non-organic. The list is endless and in the course of establishing and maintaining a vegetable-growing area a good deal of money can be spent. Fortunately, there is plenty of scope for recycling, swapping and lending in all of this, which is great, but it still all depends on one resource being plentiful: time.

Currants Egremont Russet apple Artichoke

Before it looks like I am coming out on the side of the cynics, I should say that we are gearing up to establish our own kitchen garden. Having built our house on a 'green-field' site about two years ago we have at last got to grips with the place enough to feel that we can establish a kitchen garden. I don't say vegetable plot because there are many things to grow which are, in my opinion, easier to grow for the time-strapped gardeer. Fruit trees and bushes are low-maintenance and highly productive - and nothing beats having your own supply of raspberries, apples, blueberries, gooseberries and currants. They can be pretty much left to their own devices. We'll also plant some of the easier perennial herbs and vegetables: chives, artichokes, rosemary and rhubarb are all easy. Once they are in the ground they go on and giving year after year: no complicated seed-sowing. As we get these plants established we'll carve out a few 'beds' - somewhere for lettuce, swiss chard, broad beans and radishes. We'll probably start with potatoes as these are the ideal way to break up soil and make it suitable for cultivation. First earlies are the good ones as you can harvest them before the blight strikes.

  • Apples: if you have space, you should have at least one apple tree. They just do their own thing and produce apples every year. Numerous varieties suit everyone's taste. Some require a pollinator, so always check this first. Where space is tight there are dwarf varieties or trees can be trained / espalliered against a wall.
  • Fruit trees: plums, cherries and damsons can provide a great supply without any work. The only problem can be the birds. However, if you pick at the right time, or just eat every time you pass them, you can do very well
  • Herbs: if you have a sunny spot, some herbs grow very well in Ireland. Best and easist are Bay, Rosemary, Marjoram, Chives and Thyme. Herbs grow very well in pots too and can make a soup or salad come alive.
  • Berries: raspberries, currants, goseberries and all their variants are easy and come back year after year. B;ueberries are also delicious, easy and prolific, though they do require acidic soil.
  • Perennial vegetables: some vegetable such as Artichokes and Asparagus come back year after year. Once they are established there isn'ta whole lot of work involved other than harvesting them.