Smart Consumer: Is it really possible to grow your own and save €1,600 a year?
A new study on the financial benefits of allotments makes Dave Robbins reach for his trowel
Published 03/03/2011 | 05:00
Our allotment measures eight metres by 10. Small as allotments go, yet it has claimed as much sweat and blood as any First World War battlefield.
When I read recently that you can produce 1,642lbs of vegetables from the average allotment, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Figures released by the National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardens in Britain also claimed that there are savings of £1,362 (€1,604) a year to be made by growing your own veg.
By this stage, I was close to hysterics. Our first year of allotmenteering showed an extensive debit column (rent, seed, tools, etc) and not much on the credit side (kale and Jerusalem artichokes mostly).
It needed a little trowel work to dig beneath these figures. Is it really possible to save a whopping €31 a week off your grocery bill?
When you first start to delve into the world of allotments and vegetable gardens, the first thing that strikes you is that everyone's at it.
There was a time that allotments were the preserve of middle-aged men in cloth caps who wanted a place to escape "her indoors".
These days, however, growing your own food is cool.
Local authorities all over the country have long waiting lists for allotments, and private allotment plots have been opening on city outskirts.
South Dublin County Council, for example, provides about 260 allotment plots, but there's a waiting list of over 500.
Jamie Oliver and Nigel Slater have re-invented themselves as gardening chefs, each publishing books on how to grow -- and then cook -- your own food.
TV gardeners such as Alys Fowler (presenter of The Edible Garden) have brought a kind of boho chic to gardening, while Slater's popular Nigel's Suppers series made the idea of running out to the garden to get some herbs or salad leaves seem easy and desirable.
GIY (Grow It Yourself) Ireland, a charity whose aim is to get people growing more of their own veg, has seen an explosion of interest since it started two years ago.
It now has over 80 groups nationwide, and 6,000 members.
"There is huge interest out there in getting growing," says Frances Power, who set up a GIY group in her local area of Rathgar/Terenure just over a year ago.
There are many reasons behind the boom in food-growing: a longing for a sense of community, a rediscovery of the therapeutic powers of gardening, and, perhaps above all, a need to save money in a recession.
Many growers begin because they want to know where their food is coming from. They discover that food-growing has knock-on effects: they find they cook more and get into preserving as they try to deal with that glut of courgettes.
So growing your own veg is certainly popular, but is it economic? Well, it depends who you talk to.
Mark Keenan, veg grower, blogger, Sunday paper gardening columnist and author of Plot 34: Blood, Sweat and Allotmenteers, thinks it's possible to save about €1,200 a year by growing your own.
"Last year, I grew about €2,000 worth of produce. After expenses, and after giving some of the produce away, I probably saved €1,100 off my grocery bills," says Mark.
"There is a limit to what you can save, because there's a limit to the amount of veg you can eat. In the middle of the harvesting season, my kids are eating meat and four veg!" he adds.
In his book, Mark sets out in detail how this all works.
Basically, growing salad leaves, soft fruit like blueberries, and herbs saves a lot of cash, whereas planting spuds, carrots and onions -- which are cheap to buy anyway -- breaks even at best.
Other allotment holders and growers reckon it's best to view growing your own as a hobby that is rewarding in itself, and to forget about trying to save money.
"Anyone who goes into this with the intention of saving money is going to be disappointed, especially in the first year," says Michael Fox, chairman of the South Dublin Allotments Association.
Michael, who also runs 'Plot to Pot' gardening courses, thinks the main benefit of veg growing is providing fresh, top-notch food for your family.
"When you grow your own, you are getting food you can't quite buy. You are giving your family food of the highest nutrient value," he says.
"None of the allotment holders I know would claim to be saving over €1,000. I think it's best to view it as a hobby with fringe benefits."
Michael rents an allotment from South Dublin County Council for €120 a year, which is up from €19 three years ago.
He is concerned that the steep rise in rents -- and the high charges by private allotment businesses -- will make growing your own veg a middle-class preserve.
"Allotments were always there for people of every class and all incomes," he says.
"Now it's in danger of becoming an elite recreation."
Gerry Mulligan is one of those paying the higher rents at a private allotment site in The Naul, north county Dublin.
"I pay €320 a year at Fingal Allotments," says Gerry, "for a 10m x 30, plot that is very well serviced and looked after.
"For me, it's not down to the money. There is a wonderment to growing your own food, to sustaining yourself. It's about the learning process and the fellowship.
"And then there's the moment when you arrive at someone's door with an armful of produce," says Gerry.
"That is a lovely thing to be able to do."
Allotmenteer Kevin O'Shau-ghnessy is a bit less sentimental about his council plot in Goatstown in Dublin.
"It costs a fortune," he says, "and anything tasty, the slugs will eat.
"When you grow it yourself, you're paying for everything: the seed, the plot, the fertiliser. I'd say you'd spend about €400 a year. You can buy a lot of vegetables for €400."
But he keeps at it all the same. "It's fun for the kids," he says.
"When you can get a bunch of Dublin kids playing with worms, or when they pull a carrot out of the ground and eat it there and then, that's good."
If you really put your mind to it, and your back into it, you could probably save close to that €1,600 a year on your grocery bills.
But most allotmenteers agree that there are aspects to growing your own food that you can't measure with a calculator.