In these days of credit crisis, what we grow to eat in our gardens and greenhouses plays a more and more important role in our lives. These days it’s not a lifestyle choice to grow your own, but a moral obligation and for many a commonsense solution to making ends meet. Greenhouse space is often at a premium. Decisions on what to grow each season and maybe what not to grow should be based on things that you and your family love to eat and what’s expensive to buy in the shops, but also concentrating on plants that you can easily grow yourself in the greenhouse and the garden.
Factor in crops that have an early premium (i.e. cost more for the first pickings). But don’t forget plants that glut, while you’ll need to set aside some preparation time, freezing, jamming and preserving excess produce could save you a fortune on jams, chutneys and veg, esp. if you have a penchant for buying expensive cottage industry creations. Make your own for garden gifts and stock out the store cupboard and enjoy them through the winter. There’s nothing nicer than homemade jam stirred through homemade yoghurt and it’s a fraction of the cost of those little plastic pots of mass-market imitations. As well as being delicious, healthy and you can up the jam content of your fruit and yoghurt creation to a more generous amount without feeling guilty.
When it comes to growing plants that are high value but low cost to grow think flavour. In days gone by the spice trade fueled the endeavors of explorers and adventurers who funded their trips with rare exotics from distant shores. These days we take for granted the availability of spices and rarely appreciate their value both in their rich flavour and their monetary value. But spices and herbs are precious, adding intense new dimensions to what you eat. Can you imagine cooking without adding pepper, chilli, garlic and even salt? While you can’t grow the latter (and we all know we should be cutting back on salt anyway), you really can grow the others as well as masses of delicious herbs and fascinating crops that could save you a fortune. And with the price of seed so comparatively low, you really can reap your costs back, provide essential food and have fun at the same time.
Some of the most exquisite flavours come from plants. Vanilla is a tiny seed taken from orchid seedpods and grown extensively in tropical climes. Even with a large Hartley Botanic glasshouse, it’s not really practical to grow it in the UK, but there are other interesting flavours that are much easier to grow.
Take saffron for example. The real thing costs a bomb and while you can substitute calendula petals into your cooking to add a little colour, it doesn’t come close to the colour and flavour that comes from true saffron. Surprisingly this exquisite spice comes from a humble crocus, but not the normal garden colchicum species that are toxic. Buy the true Crocus sativus bulbs or plants, which flower in October and have bright, rich red stigmas like thin threads of wool in the centre of the flowers. It is these that are the precious spice. Pick them off carefully with tweezers, leaving the rest of the flower in tact and dry them before storing them in airtight jars. At £4 a gram they truly are living gold and it only takes two or three threads to add dramatic colour and exotic flavour to your cooking. Plant the corms in terracotta pots and give them as gifts, or grow in the protection of the autumn greenhouse to stagger the harvest.
Garlic is another cash crop. It’s easy to take this common plant for granted, but it has incredible medicinal powers and is a vital ingredient in so many delicious dishes. It’s not quite as lucrative as Saffron but no garden is complete without its unmistakable flavour. Chilies are an easy choice and great for the greenhouse grower, with thousands of varieties and heat levels to choose from you can opt for the mild or ridiculous depending on your taste buds. For pepper choose to grow a Drimys lanceolata, you’ll need a male and a female for berries, though the leaves themselves are peppery and can be used in cooking. Hardy to around -15C or grow it in a pot and move into the greenhouse for winter protection.
Or why not try growing wasabi, it’s the chic, hot flavoured root first used in Sushi menus and now firing up expensive European restaurants around the UK. With fresh roots costing £250 a kilo it’s definitely a cash crop to grow, but it’s not the easiest crop either. Don’t grow it in the greenhouse, it likes shade and moist conditions, in it’s native Japan it grows beside cool mountain streams. With its extreme fiery heat it’s not for the faint hearted, but an acquired taste, a bit addictive and great for clearing the sinuses.
Whatever you choose ensure that you really do know what you are growing before you ever sample its flavours.