We speak to Dr Nigel Bending, soil scientist and nutritional gardening expert, about the benefits of growing your own, and tips for urban gardening,

What are the benefits of growing your own vegetables?

“The first and most obvious is that it provides access to crops which have higher nutritional value than their supermarket equivalents. Green leaf crops are prone to losing nutrients and minerals over the course of grading, packing, storage, transportation and display. What’s more, nutrient and mineral values on packaging are based on ‘freshly’ picked crops and may not be representative of those which you end up consuming. For example, the vitamin C content of spinach at the end of its shelf life may be 80% less than indicated!

“It will usually be possible to grow your own vegetables without using pesticides, and in doing so to avoid consuming chemical residues. Almost 90% of vegetables bought in supermarkets contain chemical residues - albeit below thresholds ‘deemed to be safe’.

“The second core benefit is that towards mental wellbeing. A study of allotment holders in 2016 found that only one in five regarded growing and eating what they produced as the main benefit of having an allotment. Instead, allotment holders identified being outdoors and having contact with nature, sense of achievement, stress relief and social interaction as their main motivating forces.”

Is it possible to grow your own without access to a garden/allotment?

“Raised beds and raised planters can be used to grow your own when outdoor space is limited. Raised beds are permanent structures often constructed using old railway sleepers, wooden blocks, corrugated steel sheeting or brick. These can work well but do require a very large volume of soil for backfilling. Raised planters have typically been wooden troughs with a simple ‘A’ frame providing support. These are cheap and cheerful but contain fabric liners that require frequent replacement and need daily watering, so are not a great improvement on an array of pots.

“A new generation of raised planters has been introduced in recent years which are self-watering, and these can be provided either with a capillary system or drip irrigation. The latter is more successful than the former as it avoids the soils becoming saturated with water. 

“Raised planters are very efficient in the space they occupy and can be placed along a wall or fence-line, preserving what little outdoor space is available. They can also be used in redundant shady spaces where they will particularly suitable for crops such as lettuce and spinach, which are intolerant of full sun.”

What are your top tips for urban gardening?

“Raised planters provide the opportunity to ‘dip your toe’ into growing your own. A self-watering planter will provide better results, and greater encouragement to keep going than a wooden trough or an array of pots, particularly as forgetting to water plants (even once) causes plants to become stressed, and leads to crops performing poorly. 

“Growing in raised planters doesn’t require any special tools aside from perhaps a trowel and a watering can with an extra fine rose. Contemporary raised planters are particularly good for those living in rented accommodation as they can be transported.”

What varieties would you recommend starting with?

“Growing your own in raised planters requires ‘boxing clever’ in terms of the crops you grow and the varieties you choose to make the most of the space available. Lettuce might seem like a mundane starting point, but home grown lettuce doesn’t taste anything like that available in the supermarket. Good choices are line lettuces such as ‘Red giant mustard’, ‘Mustard golden frills’, ‘Mustard Mizuna’, ‘Black-seeded simpson’ and ‘Cocarde’.

“Annual summer herbs that are easy and reliable include ‘Confetti’ coriander, ‘Dukat’ dill, ‘French’ tarragon, ‘Lemon’ sorrel and ‘British’ basil, which has been specially bred to deal with the vagaries of our peculiar weather.

“If you’ve got children, then growing vegetables with exciting colours will be order of the day and these could include ‘Purple Teepee’ French dwarf bean, ‘Summer Ball’ courgette, ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard and ‘Imperator Mix’ Carrots.”

What common mistakes do people make when they grow their own vegetables?

“It is not possible to grow vegetables successfully in the bagged compost available from most garden centres. It is far better to use a blended growing media comprised of good quality garden (loamy) soil, green waste (woody) compost, composted manure and either perlite or vermiculite (both of which assist in providing good drainage). 

“Watering is easily neglected and can’t be compensated for by doubling up next time around as waterlogging is every bit as harmful and common where no provision is made for drainage.

“In terms of growing vegetables themselves, seeding too early in the season is a common mistake, exposing crops to late frosts (you can easily add a month to that indicated on most seed packets), as is overcrowding which leads to increased competition and poor crops. Poor choice of crops is another problem and those most suitable for use in a planter will take no more than 10-12 weeks to grow, and varieties which are compact in their habit should be chosen.

“The key to success in planters is to organise the space carefully and to keep things simple.”