A kitchen garden can add £5,000 to your home, say property experts. But before you give it a go, heed MARK PALMER’S warning . . .’My stunted carrots, scrawny radishes and wonky beetroot – How I lost the veg plot’
As I survey carrots that are no bigger than marbles, courgettes hollowed out by creepy-crawlies and lettuce that has gone to seed, I begin to wonder whether I have a case for suing Monty Don under the Trade Descriptions Act.
After all, the hunky horticulturalist, with his pristine veg in his idyllic kitchen garden, makes this whole grow-your-own caper look so easy.
In reality, compared with almost any other form of human endeavour, it’s up there with the 12 Labours of Hercules.
My agronomical ordeal was brought front of mind when I read a story in Money Mail last month about how a kitchen garden can add £4,600 to the value of a home, with Stack Property Search waxing lyrical about how ‘beautiful raised beds in their own area, with utility space for composting’ will bump up the price of your property.
But before you head for the garden centre, may I issue a word of warning. If you end up with an ugly sprawl like mine, you are far more likely to knock a few thousand off the value of your house.
There are the many health benefits to growing one’s own fruit and vegetables: fresh air, it’s an easy form of regular exercise, and a boost to your mental health and general wellbeing
I can hear the estate agent now: ‘And here’s the raised bed . . . which does need some attention but comes with bags of potential.’
My particular garden saga began in early spring. Like many people, I had read several articles about the merits of growing one’s own fruit and vegetables. Not only is it good for the environment, but you can save a few pennies on your weekly supermarket shop into the bargain.
Then there are the many health benefits: fresh air, it’s an easy form of regular exercise, and a boost to your mental health and general wellbeing.
Understandably, during lockdown these aspects became particularly pertinent and, as a result, demand for garden allotments has grown faster than a burgeoning radish on a summer’s day.
So I took the plunge. Nothing too adventurous — just a raised bed positioned near my compost bin in a corner of the garden which butts up against the garage of my neighbour. It would be big enough to produce a decent crop of tomatoes, courgettes, beetroot, different varieties of lettuce, runner beans and those now almost non-existent parsnips and carrots. ‘Be careful with the courgettes,’ said a friend in our Wiltshire village, who is a long-standing member of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). ‘They have a tendency to take over like an invading army.’
More extensive advice came in the form of a 250-page book by Lucy Chamberlain, who used to work at RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey and edited a magazine called Grow Your Own.
Her beautifully illustrated £19.99 tome is called Step-By-Step Veg Patch: A Foolproof Guide To Every Stage Of Growing Fruit And Veg. But, clearly, there are fools — and then there are people like me.
My first mistake, having bought six long railway sleepers from an architectural salvage yard for a not inconsiderable sum, was not listening to the local former policeman who helped me assemble them (two down the sides on top of each other and two cut in half and then placed on top of each other to go at the ends).
My agronomical ordeal was brought front of mind when I read a story in Money Mail last month about how a kitchen garden can add £4,600 to the value of a home
‘Surely you want to allow some space between the bed and your neighbour’s garage?’ he said. ‘So that you have direct access to both sides . . .’
‘No need for that, I’ll be able to stretch over — and I don’t want it to take up any more space than is absolutely necessary,’ I told him.
Then it was a question of filling the empty bed with a mixture of horse manure and good quality top soil. I thought this could come in bags from the nearby garden centre, but soon realised I would need about 50 40-litre bags at around £12 each.
There had to be an alternative. So I called a bulk aggregates supplier who, for a fraction of the cost, delivered what I needed — except I had not appreciated that it would arrive in a dumpster lorry and be deposited on my driveway in one mountainous heap. It took me a whole day to move the stuff to the raised bed by scooping it up with a shovel and loading it into my wheelbarrow, then making repeated trips back and forth.
I even had to erect a homemade ramp to push it up and over the sleepers. It didn’t help that my wheelbarrow had a flat tyre.
Apart from the tomatoes, I opted to grow everything from seed. But it wasn’t clear from the instructions exactly what the spacing should be, and each packet had so many seeds in it that I assumed there was nothing wrong with simply digging a shallow V-shaped drill and then sprinkling them in.
Clearly, some were sown on top of each other, but I thought the principle of survival of the fittest would kick in — although I realise now that Lucy Chamberlain clearly says you should sow them 1cm apart.
As it happened, my planting coincided with a mini heatwave, during which I was out of the country for a week. I spent most of that time worrying that the seeds would never germinate and tried to enlist various obliging neighbours to go round and water my patch while I was away.
For a month or so, not much happened. Then, suddenly, everything took off and two weeks later you couldn’t see the soil for aspiring veg.
More extensive advice came in the form of a 250-page book by Lucy Chamberlain, who used to work at RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey and edited a magazine called Grow Your Own
This was gratifying, but soon the courgettes began encroaching. First, they colonised the strips of radishes, then the beetroot, and were soon making moves on my precious tomatoes. There was also no way I could reach the far side of the bed without getting hopelessly tangled up and trampling on the lettuce.
Even so, I was chuffed when the time came to harvest my first courgette — one of the specimens the insects hadn’t got to first. It was about four inches long, unblemished and absolutely the right shade of green.
‘It doesn’t taste of anything,’ said my wife.
I was outraged.
‘Oh, so you would prefer a courgette that’s been bombarded with pesticides and forced-grown in a Spanish hothouse, would you?’ I protested.
‘Well, yes, actually,’ she said.
A bigger problem was the radishes. I’ve loved these crunchy little beauties (Raphanus sativus) all my life. Dipping them in sea salt and biting them in half before repeating the process is one of life’s great culinary treats.
But mine were scrawny, skinny specimens, mainly because I had failed to thin them out. Not that this stopped me promoting them to my wife as perfectly delicious.
What I hadn’t made any allowance for is how delectable they also are to slugs and snails.
The parsnips have attractive tails but not much in the way of a body; the beetroot are the right colour but the wrong shape — and so it goes on.
My only remaining hope of getting some return — both financially and in terms of effort spent — are the tomatoes. One or two have even turned red. All that’s required now is for some heat and sunshine from the continent to come our way — which might just happen this week if the forecast is right.
There has been one success. My white spring onions have come up just fine — all six of them. But it’s a hollow victory because they were the one vegetable I did not plant in the bed with the others. I gave them their own container.
For now, it’s hard to visit a supermarket and see perfect carrots and parsnips. Harder still to accept they probably taste better than my home-grown collection.
I don’t know whether to try again next year — or just accept that I’ve lost the plot.
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