Whether seasoned seedsmen or gardening greenhorns, all students can harvest the benefits of growing their own food.
From nurturing a few fresh herbs on a windowsill, to making regular trips to your local allotment, growing is the gift that keeps on giving. Gardening can provide fresh food at student-friendly prices. It’s a perfect antidote to work stress and the best way to win someone’s heart, should you wish to.
Whether you’re at one with a trowel, or a gardening novice, there’s always something new to learn. Here’s how to get growing while at university.
Growing with no garden or with limited space
If you live in student accommodation, you may find that the closest you get to a garden is the Great British Bake Off finale, when Mary Berry and Paul are joined by bakers and their families to celebrate outside the tent.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Mark Ridsdill Smith founded Vertical Veg in 2010 to encourage people to grow food in containers if they don’t have access to gardens. As well as running the online project, Smith gives workshops in cities across the UK. “You’ll be amazed at what’s possible in a tiny space. Try it,” he says.
Observing how much sun your growing space gets is key. Three hours or more a day and you’ll be able to grow salad leaves and other leafy greens like kale and chard, says Smith. If it gets five or six hours you can grow peas, beans and potatoes. Over six and you can grow fruiting crops like tomatoes and courgettes.
Sunshine aside, make sure containers are kept well watered as they dry out easily, and check how windy your growing spot is – as rooftops and balconies are often exposed. Smith offers more advice on container growing on the Vertical Veg website, as well as a list of 10 edible growables to get you started.
Pimping your plot: how to find an allotment
“I’ve talked with flatmates about growing herbs before, but it’s hard as a student in halls as you have very limited access to space, says Sean Hodges, 19, a maths student at Newcastle University. “Even the windowsills at most of our accommodation are locked out of reach.”
If, like Hodges, you can’t access your windowsills, you may need to look further afield, perhaps quite literally to a field. No longer just the stuff of 1970s British sitcoms, allotments are now where all the cool kids hang out. Not convinced? Perhaps this video will change your mind:
Depending on where you live, getting an allotment can take time and you may have to join a waiting list. The National Allotment Society is a good place to start, although it’s also worth keeping an eye on local web forums and noticeboards for neighbours who want a helping hand on their allotment in exchange for produce. The latter is particularly suitable for students, whose fluctuating timetables may mean they’re away for several weeks at a time between terms.
I helped out for several years on an allotment owned by a neighbour who didn’t have time to use her full plot. I went all out on the tomato, kale and carrots front, she excelled in potatoes, beans and salads. Together we were a salad match made in heaven.
Will Bain, 34, Food Assembly host and MSc gastronomy student at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, says: “Me, my partner and a couple of friends are lucky enough to look after an allotment that belongs to someone who finds it difficult to manage.
“We side-stepped the nine-year waiting list and got it through a friend who needed help. In Edinburgh there’s not much outdoor space in typical student flats and the waiting list for allotments is really long. There is a strong community gardening movement though.”
Student roots: find out how your university can help
If container growing and allotments aren’t an option, it’s worth seeing what your university has on offer.
In 2013, Growhampton was one of 25 student union projects to be helped financially by the National Union of Students (NUS), as part of their students’ green fund. Growhampton combines training, volunteering and education in food growing for students at the University of Roehampton. It manages the Hive, an ethical cafe constructed from two former shipping containers and upcycled furniture.
“This project wouldn’t exist without the students,” says Joel Williams, Growhampton’s full time grower, who’s employed by the student union to help run the project. “We grow salads, leafy greens and oriental veg. We have weekly harvest mornings and host a small farmers’ market every Thursday that is open to the wider community. We also run the cafe and do some guerilla gardening across the campus. I’m there to facilitate, but the students initiate and lead.”
Williams is enthusiastic about the benefits of growing for students. He points out that home-grown food can be nutritious, tasty and affordable. It can also minimise food waste, as the shelf life of local, freshly picked food is days or even weeks longer than its supermarket equivalent. Then there are the health and wellbeing benefits, which include exercise, opportunities to build friendships and the chance to learn to appreciate the environment and its seasons.
Williams’ hot tips for new growers are three-fold: firstly, if you’re new to food growing begin by growing crops that will give you quick gratification in a matter of weeks rather than months, such as salad rocket, mustard greens and leaf radish. Secondly, form a club and grow with others to share rips and keep motivated. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, grow what you love to eat.
Every university is different (see Keele,Edinburgh and Sheffield’s growing initiatives), and not all universities run such projects, but if you know you want to grow and don’t have a project available where you are, why not compile a like-minded gardening gang and put some possible ideas to your sustainability or wellbeing officers.
Taking things further when you graduate
It’s impossible to know where life will take you after university, but learning new skills and discovering what you love is part of what being a student is all about.
When Sam Cooper, Tom Whitley and Matt Smee met at Chester University in 2005, little did they realise that eight years later they’d be running a small food business together. Based in Cheshire, The Natural Veg Men grows produce to sell to local restaurants, farm shops and veg box customers. It also runs education programmes that teach young people the benefits of food growing.
“My early days were spent watching my mum tend her rhubarb plants at home,” says Smee. “To now work outside with nature and in tune with the seasons is a beautiful place to be.”