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Tips for beginner food growers

Outdoor Living

ALL-ROUNDER Comfrey’s bell-shaped flowers are adored by bees, while its nutrient-rich leaves decompose quickly and make a great liquid fertiliser and an excellent addition to compost.

Green Living

McKinley Neal

The unprecedented stretch of warm weather we had recently and the lack of extracurricular activities in lockdown mean that more of us than ever are becoming keen gardeners.
I’ve talked before about growing whatever you can, wherever you can, even if it’s just one herb in a pot on a sunny windowsill. If you have a bit more space and are looking to develop more skills, I’m happy to share a few tips and tricks that we’ve been practising in our garden.
When you’re just starting out growing food, it can be daunting to think about how best to prepare beds and get in sufficient soil. The easiest way to build up your supply of quality compost is to make it yourself by redirecting your food waste into a compost heap. This will save on the cost of keeping a brown bin, and will return nutrients to the soil.
All raw veg and fruit material, plus coffee grinds and tea leaves, make up the nitrogen rich ‘green’ portion of the compost, and leaves, grass clippings, and even shredded paper and cardboard are the ‘brown’ matter that are carbon rich.
It is recommended to have a ratio of 3:1 brown to green matter, and to avoid composting cooked foods and any animal products (meat and dairy – but egg shells are an exception) unless you have a closed composter that can break these down before pests get to them. Even if it takes a while to build up your compost operation, anything you can add to your veg patches during growth or when preparing next years’ beds will be a boon.
At garden centres you will also find shelves of products designed to boost the growth of both food crops and flowering plants, but there are ways to create your own fertilisers from plants that are easy to grow or collect.
I recently put on gloves and harvested a bucket full of nettles, topped it with water and stuck in a stone to keep them submerged. It is starting to develop a distinct rotten smell that means it will soon be ready to be fed to my leafy green crops.
Comfrey is another easy-to-grow plant, and it is potassium-rich, encouraging fruit and flowers to set; cut and steep comfrey leaves like the nettle ‘tea’ and apply weekly once fruit is forming on plants.
Many people collect seaweed from the shore to soak and apply like the nettle solution, or to cover beds over the winter; the remaining seaweed can be dug into the soil before planting.
If you’re more focused on weeding than growing, we have been using a simple solution of five litres of plain vinegar, one cup of salt and a good squirt of washing up liquid to spray onto weeds growing in footpaths, on the gravel drive and along borders. It has been remarkably effective after two applications, and better still, it is a mixture that is not harmful to people or pets or damaging to wildlife.

McKinley Neal co-runs PAX Whole Foods & Eco Goods, a minimal-waste shop in Westport offering bulk organic foods, reusable goods, household products, eco-friendly personal care items and gifts.