Whether you’ve got a large garden with a greenhouse or a third-floor flat with a window box, growing your own food can combine better nutrition with a healthy and absorbing hobby.
I’ve always been the cook in our family, and my wife’s always been the gardener. When we first came to the Scottish Highlands back in 1999, we didn’t have a lot of money and good-quality fresh vegetables were hard to come by without trekking eighty miles into Inverness and back. What we did have was space, and so we turned a sizeable corner of our six-acre croft over to growing.
The first year, we just dug over a small patch, and put a fence around it to deter the wandering wildlife. That summer we grew a decent crop of lettuces, but not a lot else! Once we were a bit more organised, we added raised beds for root vegetables like tatties, onions, garlic and carrots, planted some kale, and established a couple of rhubarb plants.
Once we got our polytunnel up, we could grow plants that didn’t appreciate the Highland winds and salt spray. Every year since then we’ve been nearly self-sufficient in vegetables. It’s amazing what you can grow in the long light of Scottish summers – not only tomatoes, cucumbers and courgettes, but Mediterranean vegetables like peppers, chillies and aubergines. The secret is to think small; don’t try to grow massive fruits which probably won’t ripen before the weather cools and the light fades. There are wonderful miniature varieties available now – like Pot Black aubergines, which are the size of billiard balls, or Sweetona mini bell peppers which give you a variety of colours, each no larger than a hen’s egg. Cherry tomatoes grow very well, ripening early and producing a profusion of fruit well into autumn.
If you don’t have this sort of room, you can still enjoy growing salad and herbs in something as small as a patio tub or a window box. Choose ‘cut and come again’ varieties of salad; there are some very good seed mixes available which grow fast and give you a range of bland and spicy salad leaves to mix and match. Harvest only those leaves you need for your sandwich or salad – just cut some off with a pair of scissors close to the base of the plant – and it will continue to grow and produce more leaves. With care you can cut three or four times before the plant keels over for good, but you’ll probably find one or two seed packets will provide enough sowings to keep you supplied all summer.
If you have a sheltered patio or a small outdoor yard and a more forgiving climate than we do, you can extend your repertoire and grow tomatoes, cucumbers or courgettes in containers. These needn’t be anything fancy – you can buy ready-made grow bags or fill canvas planters, plastic fish boxes or even stout ‘bags for life’ with compost (bought or made at home). Personally, I wouldn’t bother with cheap crops like tatties or onions if space is limited – grow the stuff that’s more expensive in the shops, or difficult to obtain because of Brexit or Covid-related issues. Eat your produce young and small and it will have a much more intense flavour. Strawberries are another good bet for containers – we like the little wild alpine varieties which, like many tiny fruits, have an intense flavour. Great to scatter over your morning muesli or enjoy with ice cream!
Inevitably – especially if you grow on a larger scale than a few patio containers – you’ll experience gluts, when you have more chillies, courgettes or cucumbers than you can possibly eat. The obvious answer here is freeze and preserve. Do it wisely and you’ll have food to last right through the winter. You can blanch and freeze or cook in bulk and freeze the results. We make frozen passata and bottled ketchup from our excess tomatoes (plus lots of jars of chutney from those that fail to ripen at the end of the season), relish or ranch dressing from our cucumbers, and pickles from our chillies.
Here’s a tried-and-trusted recipe for dealing with a glut of courgettes. It’s easy and quick to make – you don’t even have to peel and chop any onions – and it works just as well if you’ve accidentally let your courgettes grow into marrows (just peel the thick skin off first and remove the seeds). It uses up a kilo at a time and fills a big stock pot, keeps a couple of days in the fridge, and freezes beautifully. We freeze it in individual servings, and it makes a great lunch for cold winter days.
Courgette and Cheese Soup
- 500g potatoes (no need to peel), washed and roughly chopped
- 1kg courgettes, roughly chopped
- Bunch of spring onions, sliced
- 100g mature cheddar cheese, grated (you can add more if you like it really cheesy)
- 2 vegetable stock cubes
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- Salt and pepper to taste
Put the potatoes in a large stockpot and pour in enough boiling water to cover. Crumble in the stock cubes, bring back to the boil, put the lid on and cook for 5 minutes. Then add the chopped courgettes, stir, and replace lid, and cook for a further 5 minutes before adding the spring onions. Cover and cook for a final 5 minutes.
Take the pan off the heat and stir in the cheese. Season with a good few gratings of nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Pour into a blender and whizz (you might have to do this in several batches). If too thick, add more hot water. Serve hot with extra cheese and spring onions on top, or cool and freeze.
If Alasdair’s writing has inspired you, why not try your hand at writing about how you eat well as part of our monthly CLANGERS project where Autumn Voices members share their own experiences. Read more about CLANGERS.