Several of my previous articles have touched upon various different food sustainability or nutritional health issues. What better way to combine them than to consider what and how we can all grow our own. Some of us may have a large space and be prepared to put quite a lot to food use, others may only have a small space and/or minimal time. There are many articles and ideas in magazines and online looking at container gardening, using small spaces, etc and there are some great books for those with bigger spaces such as John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self Sufficiency I( have a copy. I love it … I don’t actually have a big space or feel able to go self sufficient at the moment.)
So why grow our own?
- Food Mile reduction
- Packaging reduction
- Nutritional benefits of fresher foods that haven’t sat around
If we look back in history and consider the years of the second world war we know that rations were barely enough and that many people needed to supplement their food intake. They did this by growing vegetables and often keeping a chicken or 2. … even in the tiniest of spaces.
We have kept our own chickens for 8 years now. At times we have had 1 or 2, at other times up to 7. Having made the run, fox-proofed it, and worked out the knack of cleaning the coop easily (our coop is a small shed which the previous owner built nesting boxes and roosting rails into) they are the easiest animals I have ever kept. (We also have a cat, a hamster and a few tropical fish)
The cost of keeping hens is variable depending on your plans for initial outlay, but after that it is cheap and easy. Costs include:
- Hen house and run – Materials can be expensive if you buy branded hen houses with integral runs, but can be very reasonable if you buy 2″x2″ posts, chicken wire, dowling for roosting and convert some pallets for nesting.
- Hens – £10-£15 from a reputable breeder
- Bedding – We buy a full size straw bale for about £5 from a local farm supply shop
- Food – layers pellets or mash in 20kg sacks are about £15
- This amount of food and bedding last for around ‘1 hen year’ (ie 2 months with 6 hens, 6 months with 2 hens).
The eggs the hens produce are larger than anything I can buy in the supermarket and SO much tastier. The yolks are bright yellow and apparently more full of Vit D and Omega 3s than shop bought eggs. If they are happy, the hens lay daily for the first 1-2 years and then reduce to daily in the summer, but a bit less in the winter for the next year or so, gradually decreasing their output, until they stop laying around 5 years of age. From this I have worked out that the eggs cost about 12p each.
As well as laying great eggs, the hens are wonderful recyclers – they will eat almost anything – so scraps of leftover food from the kitchen go out to them if not suitable for the compost heap, as do garden weeds and bolted lettuces. … turning waste into eggs. We also then use their waste (the soiled straw bedding) in our compost … creating a sustainable ecosystem
I am of course aware that not everyone has their own garden, and although hens can be kept in a very small garden, I wouldn’t recommend having them in a flat! … however, if you have even the smallest outdoor space you can make use of it for food crops.
I have a friend who lives in a traditional Victorian terrace with a tiny back yard – you know the ones, shown in “Britishly-British” films such as Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. Her back yard is about 10’x10’, and the middle is paved with pretty York Stone. Around the edge she has ‘flower beds’ – soil for growing plants – and on the edges of the York stone she has further containers. In this space she manages to grow:
Raspberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, seasonal salad leaves, thyme, sage, mint, marjoram (a cool climate version of oregano, and much overlooked in my opinion), parsley, basil, and I’m sure some others. … She also likes colour and flowers, so has nasturtium, calendula, and even a (non-thorny) climbing rose (the raspberrries and rose intertwine rather beautifully). One year she also had potatoes in a canvas bag, but decided they took up too much space, so ditched them for more herbs. In the summer the smell and feel of this tiny space is amazing – we have sat out there on kitchen stools with mugs of hot chocolate and surrounded by a few candles…. And EVERYTHING in it is edible.
I am lucky enough to have a bigger garden, with my chickens and my newly extended vegetable patch. Last year we grew strawberries, French beans, baby sweetcorn (not enough crop for the space, won’t do that one again) carrots and salad leaves – more than we could eat… even as I have a large bowl of salad every lunchtime! We also inadvertently grew rather a lot of stinging nettles and dock leaves. … Both of which, it turns out are also edible.
If you have not grown things before and are wondering what to start with I have one suggestion: Grow something you really like that is expensive to buy.
For me, this is 3 main crops – raspberries, Spinach and mixed salad leaves.
Mixed leaves can be grown directly into soil, or in containers, or even on the windowsill and grow fast. I usually sow 2 rows of seed, straight into the veg patch in April and then another 2 rows every couple of weeks until it starts to go cooler in early September. I eat salad every day, and don’t need to buy extra. I usually use about 2 seed packets in total. .. which costs about £4 … for the whole summer. There is no plastic, it doesn’t wilt in the fridge, there are no food miles. Also I sow, I water (if it doesn’t rain), I pick. … that’s it.
Spinach is similar, and raspberries are even easier – plant your canes one spring, water in the summer … watch them grow hundreds of raspberries, pick and eat. Cut back in the autumn … wait until next summer … water again, pick and eat again. We started with 8 canes .. they sort of spread and multiply over time … we now pick around 500g raspberries every day or two for 4 weeks … I think in the supermarket this amount would cost me £5 per picking … so a total of around £100!!!
I know I can get quite excited about all of this, and once again haven’t managed to pose any questions. I apologise!!! … I hope however it helps you to think about what you / any patients might be able to achieve. I also hope that at some point, maybe community vegetable gardens, might take off as a health intervention in a similar way to Park Run. … I just need to find some land to start one in locally.
I’d love to hear if anyone has a community garden near them .. and what is grown in it / how it works. .. and whether any of them keep hens. Please let me know.