Grow-your-own: Is community growing worth the effort?

Hand with seeds

A UK-wide volunteering day is attempting to get people involved in community gardening, where you divide the work and the produce. But how can you get the most out of sharing the harvest?

For many, the commitment needed to tend a successful allotment or even a patch of the garden can be too much.

Community gardens and small-holdings seem like the perfect solution, splitting the time that is needed with others, while providing the chance to meet your neighbours and perhaps swap recipes and ideas.

But by the time you've shared out the produce - and given last year's abysmal weather - can all your effort really be worth it for a handful of carrots?

A little goes a long way

Mint

Serve mint thins with style

Toss together a microgreen salad

Try Caroline Allspice French toast

On Saturday 16 March, 270 gardens in 27 UK towns and cities open their gates for a community garden volunteering event, as part of the Big Dig project, co-ordinated by food and farming alliance Sustain.

Clare Horrell from the Big Dig is certain of the benefits of community growing.

"The horsemeat scandal has highlighted many problems in our food chain. One of the best ways to know where your food comes from is to grow it yourself," she says.

"With huge allotment waiting lists, for those who don't have a garden, getting involved in your local community growing space is a great way to get 'own-grown' produce."

Ethnobotanist and TV presenter James Wong is sceptical about just how much produce you can take home from a shared project.

To avoid low returns, he advises focussing on plants that do not need a lot of bulk to make a big impact, which he calls "transformer" crops.

"You need to grow what a lot of us plant geeks are calling 'transformers'. This is when you only need a very small amount of an ingredient to transform a dish," James Wong says.

James Wong's top transformers

Saffron growing
  • Saffron: Saffron has a similar process of cultivation as, say, onions, but rather than being an annual process, you do it once in 10-15 years, depending on your method of cultivation. If you have a plot of land about the size of a kitchen-table you'll get enough saffron to be self-sufficient (Mainly because we don't eat a huge amount of saffron)
  • Wasabi: Many of the wasabi products in the UK contain no wasabi - they're often horseradish and mustard dyed green. Wasabi grows well in consistently cold, damp and over-cast climates, making the UK one of the few areas in the world where wasabi grows like a weed
  • Cocktail kiwis: This sometimes described as a Haribo-flavoured kiwi, with an intense kiwi flavour. You can buy it in selected supermarkets and expensive food halls. It's much hardier than regular kiwifruit and is from a much colder environment

"To be self-sufficient in, say, potatoes you're going to need acres of land. However you can easily be self-sufficient in a strongly flavoured spice or herb when only a teaspoonful can radically transform a dish."

Top of the list of transformers are herbs and spices.

Take Carolina Allspice, a common UK ornamental plant. James Wong says: "It looks nice; it's in the magnolia family and no-one seems to know in the UK that the bark is edible."

The flavour is similar to cloves and nutmeg, and if you remove the bark from the plant and dry it, it can be used as a cinnamon substitute.

"If you think about how many slices of cinnamon toast you can make with a teaspoonful of this stuff once you mix it with sugar, it's totally transformative. It turns boring old sliced white bread into something fantastic."

James Wong also suggests unusual varieties of chilli for the food-focussed gardener. For example chipotle, which is simply ripe (red) jalapeno, smoked.

"If you stick some of it in olive oil, it can go a long way and potentially transform dozens of dishes from very little fruit. Whereas if you were growing apples and you were to grow the same amount, the net weight of fruit wouldn't go far at all."

Isabelle Palmer, author of The Balcony Gardener, will be growing microgreens for the same reason this year, another sound crop for the community gardener.

"These are young seedlings at the stage after a few leaves have begun to develop. Microgreens can have surprisingly intense flavours considering their small size.

A cheeky chipotle hit

Slow cooker chipotle pulled pork

Surprise with chocolate and chipotle beef chilli

Choose chipotle sauce for slow-cooked pork

Impress with an authentic Aztec molcajete

"They are easy to grow, packed full of nutrition and not simply used to make a plate look pretty. Commonly grown varieties include chard, beetroot, radish, mustard, kale, celery and sorrel."

Jude Browne from online gardening collective Woolly Green says growing unique foods can be satisfying.

"Grow things that aren't widely available in supermarkets, that look or taste a bit different on the table, or that have some interesting provenance to them, giving you something interesting to talk to your friends about," she says.

"In terms of taste transforming, chillies, horseradish, ginger, lime, tomatoes, many herbs, but particularly a wide range of mint are all relatively easy to grow."

Isabelle Palmer is convinced that growing your own is worth the effort.

"Not only is it a great way to save money, replacing the often expensive supermarket fruit and vegetables with lovely homegrown produce, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that gardening can be incredibly therapeutic.

"Scientifically it's been proven that getting your hands dirty can boost serotonin (the happy chemical) levels so it can be a huge release both emotionally and mentally."

The chance to transform your soul as well as your cooking?

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