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Why we’re all growing vegetables

With so many of us cooped up at home, there’s been a flowering of interest in all things horticultural. Over recent weeks, news outlets have reported a 250% surge in seed and compost sales, with some online suppliers having unprecedented backlogs of orders of fruit and veg crops. This has been accompanied by a flurry of social media advice that growing your own is a cheap and easy way to access food in these uncertain times.

I was recently sent a picture via Twitter of a single raised bed that could not have been more than 3 sq m, accompanied by the text “My family will not go hungry!” Another wrote that absolutely everyone should start to supplement their diets, even those in flats, with “micro greens on a windowsill”. Over on Facebook, some companies are supplying fancy veg kits with the discount code “Covid-19”, while activist groups claim domestic food growing should replace “commercial” farming altogether.

It’s exciting to see this uptick in interest. Cultivating your own food is not just rewarding, it is also excellent exercise and yields benefits to both mental and physical health. It’s hard to think of a better tonic in these trying times. However, it would be irresponsible of me not to clarify one thing: the claims that growing your own is cheap and easy are simply not based on facts.

I once calculated that, gram for gram, it would be cheaper for me to buy potatoes from a certain ultra-exclusive London department store, gift-wrapped and delivered to my door in their branded van, than the price of the cheapest potato-growing kit in the seed catalogues.

That is, of course, assuming that the other claim about it being easy is true. Trust me, even with training from Kew Gardens, there is a huge range of crops that I find nigh on impossible to get a decent harvest from. Pretty much anyone who has tried parsnips or celery, will tell you they are far from failsafe.

When I converted every square metre of a suburban garden into beds for growing food, meticulously weighing and cost-calculating every harvest for the Royal Horticultural Society, I found it provided me with less than 1% of my calorific needs and was not even close to breaking even financially. Results will vary according to your site, expertise, resources and the crops and techniques you choose, but the claim that kitchen gardening is cheap and easy for everyone is more than a bold one. Don’t bank on feeding your family from a tiny plot.

If you’re planting fruit and veg for the first time, enjoy it! It will be a welcome distraction. It will give you loads of fresh air, exercise and a chance to see the miracle of nature at work. But the idea that growing your own will guarantee the average person significant cost savings, let alone any semblance of self-sufficiency, is best left to 70s sitcoms.