posted by Ann Kelly

Salad
savings

This is the perfect time of year to try growing your own veg. It's fun and saves carbon too.

Red and green lettuce

The way the food we eat is grown, packaged and transported makes it a major source of carbon emissions - around 20% of the UK total according to Defra.

That makes growing your own a great low carbon activity that should pare a few kilos off your yearly emissions too. Late spring is an excellent time to start raising veg, even if you've never tried it before.

Any veg you've grown yourself will be more satisfying to eat than the shop grown version, but some crops are bigger carbon- and money-savers than others. Here's a few recommendations:

Salad leaves, especially "cut-and-come-again" varieties. They're a doddle to grow, will last for ages, and cutting out all the packaging and transport that normally goes between harvest and your salad roll cuts emissions.

Salads can easily travel 1000km before even seeing a kitchen.

Rocket. Another fast-growing leaf you can pick as needed, dispensing with supermarket packaging and high prices.

French beans. Just half a dozen plants climbing up a bamboo wigwam will keep you in beans for ages. Depending on where you normally get your beans, this can give fair carbon savings, as this veg is often air-freighted from Africa.

Basil, mint, thyme and other herbs. Growing your own living herbs is easy. Doing this saves on the energy used to heat, light and irrigate the greenhouse-grown shop version, and they'll last longer too.

Other veggies that'll do well if planted now include beetroot, broccoli, carrots, radish, spring onion, peas, spinach and runner beans. If you can get hold of tomato seedlings, now's a great time to plant them in a greenhouse or a sunny bed.

How to do it.

Salad leaves and rocket: For salad, try a Speedyveg mix (Suttons seeds) - these can go from seed to crop in just a few weeks. A nice rocket to try is the Wild variety from Franchi. Both can be grown in a large pot (30cm) of compost, a growbag or in well dug ground in a sunny spot. Always choose peat-free compost to protect peat bogs, which store vast amounts of carbon.

Make a shallow groove in the ground or growbag and sprinkle seeds into it, or over the surface of a pot. Cover lightly, water regularly to keep moist but not wet, and your salad and rocket will be ready to start harvesting in about a month. Snip with scissors or pull leaves off as needed.

Herbs: Try Sweet Basil, English Thyme, Oregano and Mint. Sow seeds thinly into small pots filled with moist peat-free compost, and cover lightly. Put on a sunny windowsill, water regularly and seedlings should appear in a week or so. When they start looking crowded, split them up and repot them to give them more room. Once plants are about 15cm tall (or nice and bushy in the case of Thyme), you can start snipping leaves and sprigs off to use. Don't cut too far down or over-harvest plants, and they'll keep on growing for months.

Climbing French Beans. Good varieties are Musician, Cobra, Pantheon and Blue Lake. Plant several small pots of moist compost with two beans each, and put on a warm sunny windowsill. Keep these thirsty plants well watered. Once your bean seedlings are about 20cm high, get them used to the outdoors by putting them out during the day and taking them in at night for a week (this is called "hardening off").

Once they're hardened, plant them out, either in a big (75cm+) pot of compost or well-dug ground, preferably with a bit of manure in it. Put up a wigwam of canes to support them. Your beans will go shooting up and start producing flowers followed by long pods in July. Pick as many as you like, it'll help more come.

Where's the savings?

These veg are particularly good carbon savers because they're high value crops, so it pays farmers to put lots of energy into their production. That means emissions from:

  • Fuel used to power tractors and to heat, light and irrigate greenhouses during cultivation. The University of Surrey found over 560 litres of fuel could be used per hectare of lettuce.
  • Energy-intensive fertiliser use. Greenhouse crops such as herbs are often watered with a weak solution of fertiliser every day, while granules of fertiliser are spread on fields of outdoor crops.
  • Transport of crops from field to packing centre to distribution warehouse to shop and, finally, to your home. A French study estimated that salads could easily travel 1000km before even seeing a kitchen. 
  • Preparation and packaging, especially of bagged salads, which are often washed and inspected for pests in a sophisticated and energy intensive process
  • Waste. 7.2million tonnes of food and drink is thrown out and wasted each year in the UK according to WRAP, and salad is one of the main culprits. From the extra weight carried by the bin lorries to the methane emitted by rotting food, this is another big greenhouse gas emitter. Growing your own means you can harvest what you need when you need it and help avoid waste.

Obviously, most people don't live on beans, herbs and salad.  So even if you ate them a lot and switched completely to home-grown crops, you'd still probably save less than 30kg of CO2 per year, roughly equivalent to driving 60 miles. But it's a fun, easy step in the right direction, and it tastes good too.

Share your tips.

Have you got grow-your-own tips you'd like to share? Do you have advice on the best plants to grow to save money and carbon? We'd love to hear it - email us at [email protected] and we'll put the best tips up.