Smart Consumer: Plant your own veg and see your savings grow
Now's that's it's spring (though it may not feel like it yet), an army of gardeners is preparing to get digging. Are you thinking of joining them -- maybe because money is tight and a few homegrown vegetables would help the budget?
Well, you clearly haven't heard about the €1 carrot!
No joke: a study published by the UK's Which? magazine found that inexperienced growers are buying plug carrot plants, which result in just one vegetable, for up to £1.09 each.
Not so tasty -- especially when a packet containing hundreds of carrot seeds can be bought for as little as £1. Here, you can pick up those carrot seeds for €1.30 in B&Q.
To make your gardening life easier, you do, however, have a choice of buying germinated seeds that are 14 to 20 days old or you can buy the finished product; a young plant that is already grown and all you have do is care for it and eat it.
A potted or 'living' lettuce is on sale in Superquinn for €2.99, or two for €5. You pick the leaves and eat them and the plant will grow back. You can expect three or four lettuces during the summer.
Good eating, but not a great moneysaver. Compare that to buying a head of lettuce in Tesco for 79c and the price is, in fact, pretty much the same.
But price is not the main driver for those growing their own, according to Michael Kelly, founder of Grow It Yourself Ireland (giyireland.com). "The recession has played a huge part in growing your own," he says. "It's all about back to basics. Many people have more time on their hands but it's about health and well-being as well as money, plus people don't want chemicals and pesticides on their food."
He set up Grow It Yourself as a mechanism for people to link up with other growers, to exchange tips, arrange events and to inspire each other. With 500 groups and 3,500 members around the country, there is a huge interest out there.
This growth in interest is backed up by Mark Long of wholesalers Long Life Plants and livingflavour.com. "Two to two-and-a-half years ago, 85pc of our business was flowering plants, says Mark.
"Now that has reversed and it's 85pc herbs and vegetables, and it's all down to the economy and a change in demand."
With 54 years in the business, Tommy Noctor, of Hackett's Garden Shop on Dublin's Capel Street, has seen the trends come and go. He remembers allotments all over the city years ago, and in the last two years he has seen this activity return and a "huge increase" in demand for vegetable seeds.
Seed potatoes, onion sets and garlic bulbs are his best sellers, with sales of herb seeds on the increase. And he thinks planting your own is better value.
"You could get almost 500 plants of cabbage, depending on the variety, from seeds costing €2.50, or 12 from a young plant costing €3.99," says Tommy.
Michael Kelly agrees that growing from seeds is the thriftiest, citing 300 leek seeds for €2 versus €4 for 10 or 12 plug leeks in a supermarket.
So, seeds are definitely the way to go for the savers, but he doesn't knock growing from young plants, especially for novices. "It's a way to get back into gardening," believes Michael, "and as you soon as you get a bit of expertise, you can start growing from seeds. Then, you will see a significant decrease in your grocery bill and at some times of the year have almost no need for supermarket veg."
Growing carrots, potatoes and parsnips requires expertise and a garden, yours or rented, but you could also consider having a few pots of herbs on your window sill. You can buy them from €2.50 to €2.99, feel satisfied that you've grown it, and you can save on buying expensive packets in the supermarket.
Veg growing tips
We don't all have gardens and more of us live in apartments with either a small balcony or none at all. But you can rent an allotment, or if you're in Dublin city, get on a waiting list to rent one. Some local authorities provide them, and you can expect to pay upwards of €50.
Enterprising private individuals with spare land are getting in on the act, with allotments available around the country to rent from around €250.
For example, none are provided by Limerick council but farmer John Hassett in Cappamore, a 20-minute drive from Limerick city, provides 12 allotments on his land. Interestingly, he says that most of the people growing their own on his land are from the UK or have spent time there.
The fact that in the UK they have continued to grow their own since starting in earnest during the self-sufficiency drive of World War II is something which is often cited by those in the business here.
So, we're only getting back into it here. And we may need some help.
Landscape Gardener Eugene Higgins of Colour Green is happy to oblige with these tips.
Grow the easiest
Lettuce, radishes, beetroot and garlic should grow easily, although they take nine months to mature in the garden. Grow sweetcorn and tomatoes if you have a very sunny corner or conservatory.
Every home should have rhubarb. It settles in easily and can tolerate some shade, but don't pull the stalks until year two.
Seeds vs plants
I never had the patience for growing from seed, but it will save you lots of money. You can easily end up with an innocent packet of seeds yielding 60 or 70 lettuce plants, which is good if you have the victims ready for ongoing salads at home. Cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, garlic, brussels sprouts, tomatoes and sweetcorns can all be easily got. Plant over the next few weeks.
Veg in pots
Vegetables can be grown in pots and the recently launched Potato Bags are a great example of this. The bags can yield at least 2kg of potatoes and vary in price from €5.95 to €20.95 depending on size. Kale and cabbage work well together and peppers and nasturtiums look great in pot together.
Veg in the ground
Creating a raised bed using pressure-treated wood 1.2m by 1.2m is a handy size to start with. Add new top soil (4inch by 2inch) and this soil will create a new higher base and so warms up quicker. Cabbage, mini tomatoes, broad beans, spring onions and leeks are all suitable.
Stick to natural products if you don't have your own compost. Seaweed-based liquid feeds are great and rock dust is excellent. For tomatoes and sweetcorns, organic tomato food is great.
When to plant
The ground hasn't been so cold since the 1940s, so frost-resistant plants are the safe way to go. Carrots, onions, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, leeks and peas could be considered over the next few weeks. The likes of tomatoes, cucumbers and sweetcorn will have to be planted in May/June unless you have a greenhouse.
Advice from Eugene Higgins at www.eugenehiggins.ie For information on allotments contact your local authority or go to www.allotments.ie