Gardening has become a big part of my life the last year. Prior it was never hugely on the agenda - at home we had an uber low maintenance pebbled suburbia garden, with the occasional succulent plant popping its prickly head out of the ground. There was always vegetables on the table, but they were from the local supermarket, rather then our backyard.
Fast forward to working life as a nutritionist, and I'm managing a food education program for children and young people in care and protection, which includes weekly cooking and gardening lessons in a beautiful organic garden. The idea for the garden was our attempt at getting a group of youth excited about food - if we were going to change perceptions and habits our program had to be practical, fun and regular, and a community garden seemed a good fit. It's been over a year since we begun the program, and many hours spent in the garden, and I've absolutely fallen in love with producing your own food.
Why grow your own fruit and vegetables?
We're a society that thrives off convenience, and with such an array of colourful produce readily available at the supermarket, one might question why have a personal edible garden? But aside from the numerous health and environmental benefits that come with growing your own (to come), it's also quite an inspiring way to approach our diets. When harvesting foods from the garden we're governed by the seasons, which is both a traditional and natural way to eat. Nowadays, we could be eating strawberries from US summer in the middle of New Zealand winter, which have traveled over 12,000 km across land and ocean, onto our supermarket shelf. It's quite astounding to think of the diversity of produce available year-round thanks to our intricate food system, although this has costs to the environment, food prices and taste.
If you're stuck for space, have a limited growing season or gardening just isn't your thing, then visiting a nearby farmers market is a neat way to eat local while supporting surrounding growers, as well as shopping seasonal at your supermarket. It's well worth it, with the perks of local and homegrown food extending well beyond delicious fresh produce - it can have an astronomical effect on your health, your families health, the health of the environment and even our wallets. Here are some of the perks of growing your own food:
1. Everything tastes better
As homegrown or local produce is seasonal, it's grown in optimal conditions, is often picked right a the peak of when it's meant to be eaten, where it's naturally been ripened under the sun on a vine or tree, and gets to you faster after being harvested, and so is fresher. You can't beat a super juicy ripe peach, that's been freshly picked and dribbles with sweet juice when you sink your teeth into it! With out-of-season produce, items are either grown locally in artificial conditions, or picked overseas before they're fully ripened and then chilled during transportation. Although this gets food to us without spoilage, this time and interference may affect taste and quality, and taste is king after all.
2. The accessibility factor
Having your own garden gives you instant access to the freshest fruit and vegetables, helping to save on any time and transport you'd usually need to acquire it - kind of like having the fresh produce aisle right on your doorstep! There's also a sense of excitement with homegrown food, that may make us more inclined to eat whatever we're growing. It's near impossible not to gorge on your own cherry tomatoes when they're gleaming like little rubies on their vine, begging to be eaten. Chances are if we're growing it and it's accessible, we'll at least be trying it - why put time in if it's just going to sit there right?
3. Keep food costs down
In-season local produce will always be cheaper then out of season, and homegrown produce even cheaper then that. From a supply and demand perspective, when there's ample stock available prices will naturally drop, and so if you're buying from the supermarket, get into the habit of shopping seasonally to keep your food bill down!
When it comes to a home gardening, one of the most economical ways to grow is by seed, with many seed packets selling for no more than a few dollars and supplying a few hundred seeds. Given a single teeny tiny seed has the ability to grow into a producing plant, if you're successful with your crop you'll be paid back in food countless times over, which is where the financial perks of gardening really start to emerge.
4. Reduce your carbon footprint
Food grown out of season demands resources in a few different ways. Large amounts of fuel and energy are needed to transport food items across long distances across the world, as well as to artificially recreate natural growing seasons when growing out of season produce. When we eat fresh from our garden or buy local we're significantly cutting down or eliminating our food mileage (the time it takes for produce to get from grower to consumer), which helps reduce our carbon footprint. If we set up a compost or warm farm in our garden to take care of our garden and food scraps then we can get our food waste down too!
The fresher the produce is, the more nutrient dense it'll be, and you can't get fresher then out of your own backyard. Most fruit and veg will lose nutritional value when stored for lengthy periods or from travelling afar, and so by cutting down the travel, transportation and storage time, we have food reaching our plates faster, and with the most nutrients. If we chose to go organic in our garden, then we're also skipping the ingesting of any chemicals that are often used in conventional growing methods. Although, with organic methods it's not just about what we're not ingesting chemically, but also nutritional differences too. With commercial practices, not a lot of love is put into soil, but rather plants are repetitively planted and harvested, depleting the soil of some important nutrients. If the nutrients aren't in the soil, then we can't expect they'll be in the plant in optimal levels either.
6. ...and spending time in nature is really just good for our health!
Given the busy fast-paced tech world we live in, gardening provides an opportunity for regular contact with nature, which is wonderfully grounding and great for both our mental and physical health. Any type of gardening offers an opportunity to get physical, whether that your planting, watering, digging, weeding or raking, chances are you'll work up a sweat. Given gardening is typically done in daylight hours, spending some time under the sun is a great way to bump up your vitamin D levels, which are naturally produced when we spend time under the sun. It can be a wonderful mood booster too - there is something very therapeutic about having your hands stuck in soil and being surrounded by green.
When creating a garden you'll need to take a few factor into consideration - sun, water supply and soil type will all affect the best location to set up. Building a garden will indeed require an initial financial investment (and ongoing, though this can be very minimal), as you'll need to purchase some tools, equipment, soil and seeds to get up and running. However, this doesn't have to eat through your wallet - stick to the necessities, start small and build as time goes on.
If you're keen to get started try growing some of your favourite herbs, salad greens and dark leafy greens - greens in particularly are great every-day items to have on hand, and often wilt quickly when stored, and so are perfect fresh out of the garden. My favourites to grow, and which seem to hang around FOREVER, are silverbeet and kale - we've had plants continue to produce for many seasons. If space is an issue, or if you're an apartment dweller, then try a few pots on your balcony with your favourite greens and herbs - I've seen tomatoes and strawberries done quite successfully on a high-rise balcony!
Cabbage + kale snaps taken at our community garden by Ivelina Velkova Photography