Grow your own spirit of community

How to maximise your fruit and veg and share the surplus with friends and family.

Iwas recently chatting to a friend who also rears his own meat about the great advantages of the “nose to tail” eating of our animals – using up every scrap in different and delicious ways – and it got me thinking that we certainly do not always do that with our fruit and veg.

A glut of fresh vegetables from the garden can get on top of you, leading to wastage. We spend time selecting the best varieties, sowing them, tending them, but are not always efficient about using them.

Many varieties are bred for commercial use and for something like Brussels sprouts, getting all the plants mature at the same time so they can be harvested in one go, may be paramount commercially. But I want mine to be productive over as long a period as possible.

To this end I never “stop” them (pinching out the tops so they heart up quickly and uniformly) which may be of value commercially but not on a patch where your aim is continual cropping.

Packets of seeds may contain vast numbers and the tendency is to sow them all at once, job done. But some are of so much more value if they are sown successionally, at two to three-week intervals. Other vegetables, especially peas, broad beans and mangetout give a far longer supply with monthly sowings (see box).

To help plan your beds, the new iPad app Garden Plan Pro (£6.99) is an amazing tool. It has a successional planting feature, warns about pests and can send personal reminders based on the individual’s location using nearest weather station data.

Although brassicas can be more difficult to get to grips with initially, do persevere, as most are brilliant at sitting through the winter, ready to cut when you need them. With cabbages, having cut them, leave the stalks in the ground to obtain a mass of new leaves for a later cropping.

Do not be tempted to slavishly lift (or plant) things at the allotted time. Thanks to our freaky mild winter, I have picked cucumbers in December, tomatoes (Sun Gold) in January and was still harvesting beefy fennel bulbs and self-blanching celery in mid-January.

I plant many things closer together than generally advocated, partly because I have raised beds (giving higher productivity). Close planting leads to very uneven ripening, so a few giants will mature first, giving you an early crop, then the more runty numbers flourish later in the extra space.

It works with carrots, beetroot, lettuce, fennel, parsnips and many others. Closer spacing often gives higher overall yields though the individual plants may be smaller – however, we are not going for supermarket sizes but taste. Experiment and ignore the packet.

When you have a surplus, make sure you use it creatively. If you have an allotment, selling produce can be contentious. The leading authority on this, Paul Clayden (author of The Law of Allotments), says that if you sell produce away from the allotments then really there is little that can be done about it, but legally it is a grey area.

Zac Goldsmith MP asked in Parliament if there was a policy on restrictions on allotment-holders selling surplus produce to local markets and shops. The reply was that genuine surplus can be sold. However, some allotment bodies lay down restrictions to this on grounds such as health and safety and the establishment of an agricultural tenancy.

“We should, in my view, be encouraging local food production wherever it is possible,” says Goldsmith. “I hope we will also reverse the decline in allotment spaces and begin to accommodate the extraordinary demand for more.”

Where I live, we are quite old-fashioned. Emmeline, who helps in the garden, recently dropped off an old water butt that a client had given her to a friend who needed one. The friend gave her a dozen eggs in return, and while she was there another friend delivered a load of wood.

Emmeline went back and baked a ginger loaf (with the eggs). She gave half to the man next door because she and her boyfriend couldn’t eat it all. (Another friend bartered a kestrel for a milking goat in a pub, and bought a Citroen for cash, two loads of logs and a Jack Russell.)

And so it goes on, the critical thing being that you can swap regularly only if you have something to give in return, and the more “added value” the better. Friends who have had excess veg and fruit from me have given me back fabulous bounty. This includes membrillo (from my quinces), home-made piccalilli, mistletoe (from a tree I had given them), chilli jam and all sorts of wonderful things far superior to anything I could buy anywhere.

I have been doing this for years. When I stopped working in a large London office (as a landscape architect) 25 years ago, my colleagues gave me a beautifully illustrated cartoon of me at the drawing board, surrounded by rhubarb, eggs, a cockerel and other home produce. I used to commute in with my bounty, oblivious to my colleagues’ amusement.

Anthony Davison of BigBarn, the leading local food website, has introduced “Crop for the Shop”, which enables stores to download a poster and join the scheme. One example is a rundown post office that set up a Crop for the Shop table and within weeks was laden with local food, like a harvest festival.

By cutting out the middle man, the food is cheaper than at supermarkets. BigBarn has won a Lottery grant to help more shops set up tables. Why not try to get your local pub to have a Saturday bring-and-buy fruit and veg stall in the summer?

High food prices and insecurity of supply means grow-your-own is a winner. At the same time we can rebuild our community networks.

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