Did you know that for every kilogram of vegetables you grow yourself, you’re reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2 kilograms, compared to buying from the store? I don’t have the time to be fully self-sufficient when it comes to fruit and vegetables but I get great joy from supplementing our weekly fruit and veg shop with some homegrown chemical-free produce. If you’re interested in doing this too here is my advice on doing so as sustainably as possible.
First things first; compost. We make our own compost for the garden but as it’s too cold to go out early spring now every February I buy in one bag of compost for seed planting. This year i was able to afford the holy grail in terms of compost; organic and peat free. It wasn’t the cheapest at €8.95 for 50 Litres but I’m told its top quality and the only type Dublin Zoo uses for its flower beds. I got mine in my local garden centre, Howbert and Mays but you can also order it online from Quickcrop.ie or from Johnson Garden Centre for €7.99. Fruithill Farm in Cork do another peat-free organic compost from Klasmann, which costs €11.20. The Ethical Consumer has very conveniently given the rating of peat-free composts on its website. Interestingly organic doesn’t mean 100% organic. Organic compost only needs to contain 51% organic material to label itself as such.
You may have heard that peat in compost is unsustainable but do you know why? Apart from having completely unique eco-systems bogs are also very beneficial to the wider environment. They soak up water in times of flooding and slowly release it during dry periods, thereby helping to regulate water systems. When we cut bogs we cause the organic matter in them to be eroded, resulting in silting lakes and river beds, which can lead to increased flooding – something we’ve seen a lot of in Ireland in recent years. Bogs also serve as a ‘carbon sink’, i.e. it locks carbon into it. Due to the low oxygen levels the dead layers of peat are not able to decompose. Therefore, the carbon contained in the dead peat never oxidizes into CO2 that would be released into the atmosphere. By locking away this CO2, the bogs keeping it out of the atmosphere, which effectively slows down the heating of the planet and as a result climate change. Unfortunately when we drain bogs, microbes find a perfect combination of food (carbon) and oxygen in the drying peat, causing the locked carbon be released into the atmostphere as CO2. Globally, drained and decaying peat bogs release approximately three billion tons per year of CO2, or roughly 6 percent of all such greenhouse gas emissions from human activity.
Biodegradable Seedtrays / Pots
Now in the days before I was aware of the impact of plastic on the environment I bought seed trays in Aldi. They’re still going strong and I won’t be replacing them until they start to fail because that’s the most sustainable option. If you don’t already have seed trays I think the best option is to make little pots from toilet roll inserts like above and place them on a water-proof tray of some kind. The great thing about these is that you can pot your seedlings on without having to disturb the roots. I’ve seen people suggesting egg trays to start seeds in too but in my opinion they’re just too shallow to be of any good. I’d also be concerned that they’d start to rot before the seedling was ready to be potted on (put into a larger pot).
If you must by plastic consider these seed trays made from recycled plastic or these plant pots made from recycled plastic, which are available from thegardenshop.ie. Just remember that these pots are unlikely to be recyclable when they’re ready for disposal.
Another alternative is to go completely pot free and use a soil blocker. You need blocker compost, although you can make your own. Click on the link to watch a video on how they work.
I like to buy organic, open-pollinated seeds from Irish companies. Open pollinated seeds are simply seeds that have been pollinated by the wind or insects and not by hand. This means that if I let some of my plants go to seed I can collect seeds from them and use them for next year, meaning I’m not having to buy new seeds every year, thereby reducing waste and energy consumption. Here’s a really easy way to save tomato seeds from your own tomatoes. Incidentally if you buy F1 type seeds the plant is designed not to set seeds forcing you to buy new seeds every year from the supplier.
In the past I have bought seeds from
- Fruithill Farm in Cork. The vast majority of their seeds come from a community owned seed company in Lincolnshire in England. They also sell organic flower bulbs in Autumn.
- Irish Seed Savers in Clare. They are a charity and maintain the country’s public seed bank with over 600 non-commercially available varieties of seed. Their main objective is to conserve Ireland’s very special and threatened plant genetic resources and they focus on heirloom and heritage food crop varieties that are suitable for Ireland’s unique growing conditions.
- Brown Envelope Seeds in Cork. You can also buy their seeds from Green Vegetable Seeds
- Seedaholic in Galway have a huge range of seeds, some of which are organic, although they pack their seeds in plastic and don’t appear to have a return scheme.
- Beechdale Garden Centre in Wexford sell some organic seeds.
- Vital Seeds in the UK sell organic vegetable, herbs and flower seeds.
- Premier Seeds Direct in the UK also sells organic seeds
What to Plant
When it comes to choosing what to buy, I’d recommend buying less than you think and only buying vegetables that you already eat, at least initially. It’s wasteful to buy seeds if your family is not going to eat the end result. I also think some vegetables are much easier to grow than other like peas, mangetout and beans. These plants can also be trained up an obelisk, taking up less space, so they might be a good place to start in year one. Plants like broccoli need to be netted to protect against butterflies and pigeons, and carrots against carrot fly, so unless you already have netting and supports leave them till year two.
Succession planting is a large part of vegetable growing. You do this to avoid having a glut vegetables ready to harvest at the same time. I stagger my seed planting by aiming to have 4 plants at the same age at any one time. This means planting 3 seed-tray cells every 2 weeks until you have the required number of plants. For me it’s 9. That way I should have plants ready to harvest on a weekly basis once the first one has matured.
I haven’t yet attempted to maximise the yield for my garden but it’s on my to-do list. If your’e chopping the bit to do this yourself here is a really excellent blog post on high yield crops from Grow My Own Food.
There is an excellent tool on the website Gardenfocused.co.uk. This tool gives you a personalised gardening to-do list based on the fruit and veg you select. It’s magic!
Guide to Growing Seeds
If you’re unfamiliar with how to plant seeds check out this guide on how to germinate seeds from an earlier post. When you plant is not determined by the calendar but by daily temperatures, here’s a handy guide to what to plant at what temperature and this guide on growing vegetables in Ireland from the Green Vegetable Seeds will help you decide which vegetables to start with. Another very helpful post on this topic is on the Lovely Greens website, and if you’re having problems I’ve found this troubleshooting guide to seed germination very good
Check out the other posts in this series
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Design and Layout
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Planting Seedlings Outdoors
- Growing Fruit & Veg: Feeding and Watering,
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Selecting Plants
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Planning for Summer
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Spring Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Early Summer Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Mid Summer Colour
- Creating an Ornamental Garden: Late Summer Colour
- Wildlife Friendly Gardening
- Sustainable Gardening Hacks
- Guide to Composters and Composting