Green-Fingered Sustainability: Grow your own, Student-style!

Amy Cooper shares her top tips and brings us a growing-your-own food student style guide! This article shares all her ideas and experience in growing food in a bid to be more sustainable at her university home.

As someone raised relatively rurally with a farming family, I’ve been growing food for as long as I can remember. For most of my childhood, my plot was a triangle of our ramshackle ‘veg patch’ fenced off with stones, in which I largely grew chives and strawberries Our house was also full of plants, from aloes to orchids, it was very strange to move to University with only one leafy friend. Five years later, my leafy-friends collection has eclipsed that of my childhood home and has also taken over most windows in my student house. A lot of my plants are houseplants, but I started growing food around three years ago, and the windowsill of any kitchen I live in are rarely without some sort of potted herb or vegetable – my flatmates have learned to live with it, given the rewards that eventually return!
My love for plants in the current climate is threefold. Firstly, on a student budget food can be expensive, vegetables even more so even without the consideration of the environmental impact of air miles, and fresh herbs a luxury.

Supermarket herbs are particularly bad; the ready-cut ones come wrapped in plastic packaging, and the potted ones often need quickly repotting, don’t last too long and sometimes have bugs. Growing your own – especially herbs – can be a small way of reducing your budget whilst still adding a couple of basil leaves to your tomato pasta and feeling a little fancier.
Secondly, growing your own gives you a much better appreciation of what is in-season, which helps you reduce your environmental impact even further. Realising you might not be able to grow what you want immediately may give you a better idea of which fruit and vegetables you buy are coming to the greatest distance.
Finally, especially given the current coronavirus pandemic, there is a lot to be said for taking pleasure in the small things. In a time where everything can seem scary, stressful or insurmountable, watching a small shoot appear from some seeds you planted, and then watching it grow and eventually provide you with food, can be very satisfying – even if it is very simple.

There are several challenges with growing plants in a student house, even before sustainability is added – budget, where to find materials, where to get seeds, what to do with them over the summer when you move home. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but hopefully, this guide might provide some inspiration!

Top tips (if you don’t have time to read the whole thing!)

  1. Herbs are the easiest thing to grow in a student house, the cost can be shared between several people and you’ll make the best environmental impact. They grow quite quickly and don’t need much looking after.
  2. Most plants like to live on kitchen windowsills.
  3. If you aren’t sure whether you’re watering your plants too much or if they’re getting too hot, a good rule of thumb is a window which isn’t in the sun for most of the day and watering once a week. You want the soil to dry out a little between each watering. If you’re worried you’ll forget, set an alarm on your phone!
  4. You don’t need to buy fancy pots. Start your plants off in egg boxes or eggshells or paper tubes, and move them to old tin cans, yoghurt pots or any other reasonably large container when they get big enough. Just make sure you make a hole in the bottom first!

What to grow, and how to grow it;

If you aren’t a natural gardener or weren’t lucky enough to grow up with a garden, the world of seed packets can be very intimidating. These are my tips for choosing what to grow in a student house.

Herbs:
Herbs are ideal. They grow very quickly, they don’t take up very much space, and they don’t require too much looking after. Also, seed packets usually cost about 99p. I planted basil, parsley, thyme and rosemary in late March, and all of them have had several harvests since then. Basil is a particular favourite of mine – it’s very useful for a lot of student meals, it grows very quickly, and it replenishes itself quickly too.
The other good thing about herbs is that you get a lot of seeds in a packet. This might sound obvious, but you don’t need to use the whole packet in one go. I used about a third of my basil packet this time, but that was to grow enough basil to sensibly make several lots of pesto. To grow a single pot of basil you need about an eighth of a packet or about seven or eight seeds. So if some of your friends are keen to grow plants too, you can share your seeds packets – and the cost – between you.
Alternatively, most herbs (even well-looked-after) will only survive for a year or two in a pot. So come the next year when your herbs are a looking a little sad, you can just plant the next lot of seeds.
Herbs usually like being watered about once a week, and they particularly like living on kitchen windowsills where they get light, and humidity from the sink. However, they’ll survive on pretty much any windowsill as long as it doesn’t get too hot or too cold. When harvesting them, try to take the largest and oldest growth first, as that won’t stunt the growth of the plant (ie. On a basil plant, take the bottom leaves first!)

Salad:
Like herbs, salad takes up barely any space on your windowsill – you can grow it in a single pot, and it requires very little looking-after. The other advantage of salad is that if you are careful to only take large leaves, it will keep growing for several months – a free, self-replenishing supply of salad. I would also include things like cress in here – aside from the nostalgia of growing cress (is it just me that did this at school?) it’s a cheaper way of spicing up your lunches.
Salad doesn’t particularly like being in hot, direct sunlight (sorry to my salad plants fried by the April heatwave) so a windowsill not facing the sun for most of the day would be perfect. They might need a bit more water, maybe once every three days.

If you’re lucky enough to have a student house with a garden or a bit more space outside, you can afford to be a little more creative. I’ll talk about containers and compost and things further down, but some easy-to-grow vegetables that take up minimal room, grow fairly quickly and don’t cost the earth are:

Peas/beans:
This might sound a bit odd, but peas and beans are very easy to grow. They sprout very quickly, and they don’t require much space in terms of roots as they grow upwards. You can grow them inside, to begin with until they’re about fifteen to twenty centimetres tall, and then move them outside as long as the danger of frost has passed. They will need canes for support, but if you don’t fancy buying bamboo canes (which, fair enough) any stick foraged on a walk will do perfectly well if you tie several together with string (or duct tape) and make a wigwam.

Strawberries:
We needed some fruit somewhere on this list! Strawberries are very easy to grow and usually come as plants – so although they’re a little more expensive, they’re very easy to grow indeed. The main issue is finding a container for them, although they can be stuffed into a pot tightly so don’t need all that much space. The other problem is stopping the birds eating them – suggests for that one welcomed!

Potatoes:
Potatoes are super easy to grow, even easier than peas and beans, but they require quite a lot of compost. You can grow them with minimal space – you can buy specially-made potato bags, but honestly, an old compost sack will do perfectly fine (or any other container you can recycle which is quite deep!) Fill it part-way with compost, plant the potatoes, and then keep covering up the shoots as they appear until the bag is full. Four months later – potatoes! Here’s a great video.

Carrots:
Again, if you don’t have access to a deep pot this might require about half of a compost sack. Plant the carrots indoors, wait until the frost has passed, and then move them straight into the sack. You need to space carrots further apart, so fewer will fit in, but a compost sack should still hold several plants.

If you’re even luckier and have a lot of indoor space in front of a warm and large window (like a patio window) you could try growing something like tomatoes or peppers. These don’t need too much space horizontally but do need space to grow upwards, and lots of water – as well as tending to be a little more expensive.

Where to get the materials, and how to make it budget-friendly:

Compost
The most expensive thing you will buy when growing plants is compost, and this will also be the thing that has the greatest environmental impact because of the packaging. There isn’t an easy way around this particular unless you have a very green-fingered landlord who might be convinced to give you some compost. However, you don’t need to buy ‘super fancy’ compost to grow things at home. Most supermarkets sell compost pretty cheaply as long as you’re prepared to carry it, and if you’re only planning to grow herbs you could split a bag several ways between you and your friends. And as discussed earlier, compost bags can be reused for growing potatoes or carrots – or as a bin bag if necessary!

Seeds
Seeds are very easy to buy. You can get them in supermarkets, DIY stores or online. As I mentioned earlier, most packets will come with more than you need for one use, so you can also share the cost of these with friends or keep them for multiple years. Most of them also come with instructions on the back which give you some idea of planting instructions and watering instructions.

Containers
The easiest way to be eco-friendly! Plants aren’t fussy about the type of containers they live in, as long as there’s plenty of space.
For starting your plants out, you have several options;
Herbs are often best sewn directly into the pot they’re going to live in, and so something like a tin can, an old large yoghurt pot or, if you can get hold of them, some second-hand plant pots, are ideal. (For second-hand plant pots, why not try one of the plant exchange Facebook groups for York, or Freegle? The most important thing for these pots is that they have drainage, so you need to stab some holes in the bottom with scissors. You will also need to put a tray underneath them, but this could be a plate, baking tray (if you don’t need it) or even some old packaging for some food you bought if you washed it out first!
For growing things in smaller pots to move them into bigger ones, you can be a lot more creative! Toilet paper tubes, eggshells, egg boxes and newspaper tubes all work perfectly well as pots and have the additional benefit of being able to be planted into the larger container pot-and-all as they’ll decompose. However, you can also use yoghurt pots, or I’ve personally found the occasional Lush face mask pot to work very well indeed!
For large containers, you can either re-use compost bags or find some second-hand. Again, these are very difficult to get hold of in a sustainable way as most vegetables are planted straight into the ground, so second-hand might be the best way to go. If you do have to buy new plant pots, try and buy durable ones which will last for multiple uses.

I hope this has been a helpful guide to getting started with growing your own in the most sustainable way possible whilst keeping to a sensible student budget! I’m always keen to hear more tips and tricks, so if you have any further ideas or suggestions let me know!

About the author: Amy is currently studying an MA in Medieval Literature and Languages; she also works at the Bishy Weigh in York!

Image Credits- Authors own

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