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Know what you eat: How you can grow your own vegetables and be more sustainable

There’s something quite satisfying about growing your own vegetables and herbs that you can harvest and then cook up a storm with.

But of course for those living in cities with a significant lack of garden space, you have to be a little more cunning with how, what and where you plant.

More people are turning to home-growing, not only as a means to cut down the cost of your food shop bill, but so they know the exact origins of the food on their table.

Here at Tipple & Taste we’re focused on learning more about where our food comes from, how we can be more sustainable and use seasonal produce.

So while we haven’t got a spot to plant our own crops, our chef George grows his own personal stash of herbs in simple windowsill planters that he uses in his dishes at home.

For our events we turn to specialist vegetable grower Charles Dowson, who is an expert in making the most of the space you do have.

Charles, who has an allotment in Bishops Park, Fulham, and teaches children all about horticulture, loves seeing his vegetables grow.

“There is a pleasure putting these tiny seeds in and getting a brussel sprout plant, it’s the growing which is what I find fascinating. Looking after it as it grows, I find that fascinating, I find that a pleasure.”

He has some great tips for you keen greenfingers out there to get started...

Where to begin

If you have access to a community garden or an allotment, Charles advises novices to start with something simple that will guarantee your a crop - that is if you keep a close eye on your seedlings.

Firstly making sure you plant something you will eat is a good first step, so choosing seeds like beans, strawberries or tomatoes that are “very hard to kill” is a good place to start and will often produce a good crop without complicated techniques.

Staggering your crops of courgettes, kale and peas when you plant them also means that you will enjoy harvest throughout the year, and they won’t all ripen at once and go off before you get chance to eat them.

Knowing where your food comes from is part of the pleasure of growing your own crops and also paves the way to reducing single-use plastic as there’s no packaging!

Storing your crop

Charles only eats what he grows so at this time of year he’s chowing down on leeks, brussel sprouts, aubergine, parsnips, carrots, beans, spinach and swiss chard.

But other crops from his allotments don’t go to waste: “I lift my potatoes in early September, I put them in to muslin sacks I store them in a steel metal dustbin in my shed, stick the lid on to keep the rats out.

“My onions I leave to dry on the ground (in his allotment) having being lifted before the rain comes. When they are completely dry I string them up and I put them in an area of my flat downstairs which is quite cool and they will hold all winter until spring.”

Certain vegetables do have different requirements but more often than not they need to stay in a cool environment that also has ventilation, so they don’t produce a fungal disease.

Beetroot, carrots, parsnips, turnips and celeriac can be stored in either sand or peat.

Herbs in the city

Potting herbs doesn’t need to be expensive or use up a lot of space. Put old teacups to good use, source second-hand crockery at charity shops, or balcony planters if you have a little extra budget.

And the soil doesn’t need to be the best - Charles explains that most herbs prefer pretty rubbish soil but it does need drainage. If you are growing in pots mix compost with horticultural grit which will help.

The easiest herb to grow in a pot is mint (a perfect addition to your post work mojito!) as well as thyme because it doesn’t have a root base and it grows out. Generally speaking small-rooted herbs like oregano, lemon verbena and marjoram all grow well in pots. You can also grow rosemary and sage in a pot, but ideally they are better grown in the ground.

How to buy vegetables at a supermarket

It may sound like an easy task, but Charles explains there are a few things you need to look out for when getting your weekly shop.

“People should feel every product they’re about to think of buying. Particularly cucumbers, particularly courgettes, they have to be firm and not soft at the end,” he says.

Charles feels every item in store and isn’t concerned about sell-by dates: “I’m interested in what they look like and what they feel like.”

When it comes to vegetables in the brassica family like cauliflowers, cabbages and broccoli he adds: “Particularly broccoli heads if they’re a bit soft and floppy you don’t want them. They have to be strong firm stems. It shows they are fresh.”

Surprisingly Charles adds that most vegetables in supermarkets are often from the previous year: “Potatoes will be from last February as it takes them 13 weeks to grow.”

Supermarket stock is grown in polytunnels - a semi-circular or square shaped tunnel usually made out of steel and covered in polythene - that are used to keep plants, vegetables and fruits warm enough to grow in temperate regions.

For something a bit different…

You can literally think outside the box when it comes to fruit and vegetables you may not think would grow well in the British climate.

Figs, grapes, kumquat all work well in the UK as well as chillis which exotic in nature come from all over the world but are easy to grow in a plant pot.

Charles adds that okra grows successfully in a greenhouse, and even chickpeas outside if it’s a warm summer.

And don't forget to book your tickets now for our Winter pop-up at Pilango Cider and keep your diaries free for a Christmas special on Friday 13th December!


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