Crop comparisons by work or value

At this time of the year our memories are still fresh and we can recall how our harvesting went over the last few months, our successes and failures and so on. If we are sensible we note which crops did us well, which varieties performed above average and which below. Over the years we select and choose those ones that fit our needs most closely. Hopefully we don’t waste our efforts growing crops we never use and even more hopefully we don’t run out of favourites too soon.

But how is the novice gardener to know what to grow? Even an experienced gardener given a new plot will be uncertain of what will do best where and when so most planting is rather experimental to start with. Asking the locals what does well for them is probably the best path but then they may not tell you their particular method used to achieve their results –especially if they ‘show’.

There are some general guidelines as to what to conentrate on such as ‘roots do better in lighter soils, brassicas in heavy’. Swedes for the north and west, turnips the south and east’. ‘Currants for the south and berries for the north’. Unfortunately these are just generalities, there is still no telling what will do for you in your plot by your methods. The only way is to try, find out and adapt accordingly. And you still need a starting point. How much do you want and how much space does that require? Some manuals estimate expected returns from a given row of each crop, yet this will vary by more than 100% just depending on the year!

One of the biggest hurdles is also that many new gardeners are starting growing for taste, freshness, variety, to be organic or just for fun. Whereas the majority of books and advice has always been about production, about solid, reliable and maximum returns per square yard, about feeding a family of eight or twelve the year round, and at the other extreme; of growing huge prize exhibits of the almost inedible. Now I hope most of us grow what we like, and what we succeed with. But as I said at the beginning the novice may know what they like or want, but they have little idea of what they have to do to get it. Each crop is a mystery as is how much of each they will need. And there other pitfalls- few of us set out to grow what is either least work, or what is most profitable. These are rarely indicated in the books, and never on the packets!

So I have assessed the various crops according to their required effort to produce something at least as good as the shop bought, on average soil by average means. This has been balanced against the cost of buying the same item, in season. Of course the trouble is in the real world- you either have far too much or nothing at all as the weather dramatically alters which crop does well or poorly.

A prize has to go to the culinary herbs. These are so easy to grow that a lifetime’s supply can be had in one season and dried or frozen for several. Certainly if you cost a packet of dried or fresh herbs against the effort required to grow them it’s amazing save the temperamental and difficult such as oregano (not marjoram but the real stuff). Mint, thyme, rosemary, sage etc are all so obliging, even the annuals such as summer savory, basil and coriander rarely pose any difficulties except in cold wet summers.

Closely following herbs are the other strong flavourings garlic and chilli peppers. Garlic is ridiculously simple and little work. Although likely to produce smaller cloves than the shop it still tastes the same and is rarely bothered by any problems yet is expensive to buy when you consider how little space or effort is required. Chilli peppers are exhorbitantly priced when you discover how many one good specimen produces from the same space as a tomato plant would take. If you can grow indoor tomatoes you can grow chillies as they have less problems, grow more compactly and need no nipping out. Definitely a must for those who love them; and don’t forget to dry and pickle them for winter. A forgotten and similar treasure is horseradish which although not used as often as it warrants is so easy as to be a weed and hard to find except as the commercially prepared condiment.

Probably the next most valuable crop is salad leaves especially rocket and the loose-leaf lettuces. If you enjoy them regularly then endives, mustards and the many other saladings are also relatively easy and profitable. Sowing radishes may seem worth while but only if you like them, certainly they are quick and easy and better fresh, but you only need a few and they will hardly save much in the long run. Spring onions are a similar crop, although little work they are fairly inexpensive, even organic ones.

On the other hand spinach seems expensive to buy when you look how lushly it can grow in good conditions, but it’s very labour intensive especially in poor or dry conditions when you have to weed, water and pick little and often. Naturally watercress is not simple to manage -and so cheap to buy, though American land cress makes a good substitute with less demanding cultivation.

Peas are awkward- when you look at the seed cost, the work growing them, then the picking, the podding, and the tiny amount you end up with then frozen organic peas look cheap. But you can’t buy the choicer sorts and sugar snaps and petit pois are so much better fresh. However for the novice with bird and mice problems they can be difficult and in dry years they mildew, but at least they are easier to get up out of the ground than French beans

French and runner beans are definitely worth growing in warm sites with light soils but can be hard to get going on cold and heavy situations. Once up and away they are relatively light work and trouble free in a warm year and compare very favourably with buying them. Drying beans are cheap to buy when you look at the effort getting a pound of them though. Broad beans are astonishingly easy and productive but not so much favoured as other legumes so rarely grown in quantity.

Beetroot, like most other roots, is difficult to assay- although easy to grow well as such, the bird problem destroying the young plants defeats many. Home grown does offer much better varieties but the shops are competitive, especially when you add the costs of preparing and pickling. However the ease of picking and storage makes this an economic crop worth growing rather more than say carrots.

Carrots can be depressing to grow, they often fail to germinate and in heavy or stony soils may be miserable specimens. In light sandy soil they may be prize winners but then succumb to root fly damage. I love to grow my own but to be fair shop bought ones (organic of course) are comparatively cheap.

On the other hand you can rarely buy delights such as Hamburg Parsley or Scorzonera so if you want these you have to grow them and their value is immense- but only if you like them. ( I find little use for the parsley like root but Scorzonera is really rather tasty!) But parsnips are not to my taste so I only grow a few for chips, and considering the effort some years these barely prove economic rather like carrots.

And likewise I find Swedes difficult to grow here in dry East Anglia and cheap to buy, turnips do better for me but I don’t like them as much. Celery and Leeks are other crops that given a richer, heavier, wetter soil might well be worth while but here they are a challenge and the shops offer good ones in season. Onions are another crop that although suited to my soil, requires so much space I now buy my winter needs from an organic farm by the sack. Sets are less work than seed but cost so much more.

I’m sorry to say it but good hard white organic cole slaw cabbage is inexpensive to buy so it almost seems crazy to grow it. Indeed brassicas require the richer soils, a lot of space and quite a deal of care to grow and if you have a light soil they’re somewhat difficult. Certainly if you want choice varieties, the freshest broccoli and tasty sprouts you have to grow them. But in general brassicas take a lot of space and work and are rather uneconomic in season.

Likewise maincrop potatoes are a lot of work when you look at the price of buying them by the sack -but then you can’t buy the best sorts. They could be an expensive indulgence in time, effort, space, up front seed costs and storage. New potatoes being so much more expensive to buy are more valuable though, especially any forced under cover or cloches.

Although sweet corn is expensive to buy, it takes a warm site and a rich soil with floods of water to grow well. It is really only worth growing in the warmer regions but it’s not easy and the yield for the space is small so in the colder regions it can’t be recommended -except in big buckets under cover.

Tomatoes can be easy or difficult depending on the season and your skill, but little compares to the pleasure of eating your own Gardener’s Delight, they are a must.

At the other end of the spectrum the perennial crops are also well worth considering such as globe artichokes, seakale, rhubarb and asparagus. All are expensive to buy and with such succulent crops fresh is essential. They are fairly low labour but do take a lot of space and you have to want them badly enough to invest the effort incurred getting them going. However given the room they are very rewarding. But I have seen many gardens encumbered with these where they were not liked enough to be worked well enough to be worth having.

Likewise for the soft fruits which can be very good value. They do not have very heavy work loads once established, or even need much skill, they are expensive items to buy fresh and so these plants probably give you the best return for your money. But there is no point if they will be neglected and left to the birds. And those with the highest value such as strawberries do unfortunately take some work but then they don’t cost a lot. Strawberry plants cost less than the fruit they could produce the first year and the same goes for all the other soft fruit. Tayberries, blueberries, and grapes very soon repay their cost. (Though unless you grow the right grapevine, and in a container, these can be both horrendously time consuming AND unproductive.)

Top fruits are expensive to buy, take more space and not all give as valuable a crop. It is foolish to plant a Bramley or a Cox, when hundreds of other choice varieties are available. Plums and quinces once planted are no trouble but do you want huge crops? The problem with top fruit is it’s only low effort and a good return if you have the space to leave it unpruned. As soon as you restrict the form such as with cordons or espaliers the workload increases -but then so can the quality, especially if you summer prune and thin the crop. It is very much that you get more quality out as you put more effort in thus making these a good return compared to shop bought though expensive to set up.

And with the most valuable such as cherries there is no point growing them if you can’t cage them. Only then can they be had fully and deliciously ripe untroubled by the birds, but keeping cherries confined is a difficult task. I planted some standard cherries when I moved here and have never done any work to the trees since planting them that quarter of a century ago. And as they are far too big to net I have never gathered any of the shed loads of fruit they have generously produced- great value to the songbirds but hardly any for me.