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Last year, my former employer gave me a bundle of cash. Not as a reward for my wit, spontaneity, creativity and business genius. Rather to remove me from their balance sheet.
I accepted their money and took the term “gardening leave” quite literally. I actually did sow, plant and tend to my fruit and vegetables with remarkable results.
However, as I have returned to work, I recognise that the rich people of the UK have a problem. Our busy lives mean we throw money at packaged fruit and veg, purchasing pristine polished parsnips, perfectly peeled potatoes, plastic-packaged pears and punnets of Peruvian physalis from M&S and Waitrose.
Choosing convenience over provenance, beauty over taste and fashion over season, we have forced the closure of local greengrocers and left our taste buds seriously starved of bursting flavour and freshness.
In days of yore, the rich would have left dirty hands, digging, composting, pruning, watering and weeding to the peasants. Not any longer. Manual labour is back. But not because we have no money. We do. It’s because homegrown is the new designer label.
Who needs Balenciaga when you can show off your bumper crop of Borlotti beans and butternut squash?
The best thing about growing your own veg? Eating the results. I love fresh produce. That wasn’t always the case. Like many people born in the 1970s, when everyone (even the rich) had relatively little money, I had a strange relationship with fruit and vegetables.
Unless it was green, frozen and a pea, or masked by tomato sauce and on toast, or came out of a tin with a glace cherry on top, I had little interest. Mostly because school dinners monstrously abused fruit and veg. Greens were boiled until they’d almost gone brown. School corridors and classrooms stank around lunchtime. A pungent stench, equalled only by sticking your head in a gym bag full of PE kit at the end of term as a dare.
Even nice vegetables were ruined. Potatoes turned into a claggy stodge, carrots an orange mush. Of course, the good stuff was never served at school. Strawberries were a summer treat that appeared for two months of the year, usually at a picnic. And asparagus was a luxury worth eating, despite the unfortunate consequences. But these delights never made it on to the menu of British private schools.
By the late 1980s, rich people flocked to the beautifully presented and polished fruit and veg in our supermarkets. Cleaned so that you didn’t have to. Chopped in case you couldn’t be bothered. Bagged because the original form just wasn’t convenient enough. Or the right shape because funny-shaped vegetables must surely have been banned by the EU. All packaged in heaps of plastic and polystyrene and reassuringly expensive because in the 1980s it was fine to have, spend and visibly consume.
But subsequent recessions forced us to cook again. Delia, Nigella, Jamie and The Great British Bake Off got the nation rolling up its sleeves. And what better to impress the “judges” at your next dinner party than home-grown ingredients?
Our enduring love affair with convenience foods has arguably been driven by a lack of time. Nowadays, an abundance of leisure time is the preserve of the wealthy.
We’ve reached a turning point. RIP the cauliflower steak — £2 badly spent. For that price in Lidl, you can buy three kilos of potatoes, two kilos of carrots, half a kilo of shallots and half a kilo of parsnips, with enough change to pop across the road to Aldi and buy a foil vacuum wrapped gourmet supreme salmon pouch of cat food. And still have 5p left over to buy a carrier bag for your haul.
While I get the whole Lidl and Aldi thing, I am not going to shop there. I can’t be dealing with the bingo wings, trackie bottoms or screaming children. Similarly, while the veg may be cheap, it still doesn’t taste of much. Plus I don’t have a cat.
In these enlightened times, things are different. By highlighting the dangers of plastics in our oceans, David Attenborough has turned excessive consumption and food packaging into a social pariah. The answer? You need to get into your garden and do something!
However, I am not suggesting you sack your gardener. Those lawn edges won’t sharpen themselves and that turf needs an expert driving the ride-on mower. Pruning roses, deadheading dahlias and fancy topiary should all be left to the professionals. Gardeners, however, hate growing fruit and vegetables.
In order to prepare, it’s time to splash the cash at the garden centre. After all, this isn’t an exercise to save money. But be careful when you go. At weekends, families with nothing else to do will get in your way. On a weekday you’ll realise just how many old people we have in this country. If you’ve ever wondered what they do all day, go and look in the café.
There are some convenient “cheats” that newbie veg growers may be tempted by. I’m thinking about buying seedlings rather than starting from scratch. But that forces you to miss a hugely enjoyable period of the vegetable and fruit growing cycle: the opportunity to take a wireless and a flask with hot tea and maybe a biscuit into the greenhouse, and sow stuff.
The key to successful posh gardening is to grow produce that will taste good, be different or even exotic. Carrots and parsnips are a bother. I’ve yet to have any success in that department. Soft fruit such as strawberries, red and blackcurrants and raspberries are all excellent. If you look after the plants, they’ll deliver year on year. They’ll also allow you to make copious amounts of jam in order to ingratiate yourself with the neighbours and prove your posh credentials. But for variety, might I suggest planting some golden raspberries. After all, they’re only infrequently available at Waitrose, plus the supermarket ones don’t taste of much and cost a bomb.
However it’s in the vegetable department that you can seriously impress. This year, the asparagus pea, borlotti beans, cucumbers, purple heritage beans, butternut squash, marrows, runner beans and a host of herbs are making a return. Tomatoes too. They’re really easy to grow and prove very helpful for summer salads in the beach hut.
You want your tomatoes to look home grown but to taste epic. Sweet, tasty, juicy, crunchy and bursting with flavour. So go for a range of varieties that are hard to come by in the shops. Tigers, blackened or green are all winners.
After all, you aren’t just growing for yourself. The glut around harvest time allows you to invite your friends over for a feast of fresh produce. This year’s “must have”? The cucamelon. A packet of seeds costs just £2.49. A cucumber crunch with a lime sour twist. The crop yield is said to be good and they’ll more than earn their keep. And they’re as rare as hen’s teeth.
Having spent last weekend planting, sowing and preparing with the double Bank Holiday stretching ahead, it’s an exciting time of year. This isn’t about saving the planet. Or saving you money. In our increasingly complicated and scary world, the luxury of spending time growing and eating your own provenance-assured delights is an earthly pleasure that money simply cannot buy.
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