As I look out on my developing plot today, I realize this was a very sound briefing. The seeds you plant and the plants you put out really want to grow. You don't have to make them; you just have to let them. There can be setbacks, of course. Occasionally, you have to submit to the tyranny of the weather, and the determination of the natural competition for the edible goodies you are nurturing—particularly the slugs. Losing a whole row of tiny beet plants to a single mollusk can be the cause of a major foot-stomping session. But chances are, you'll get over it by suppertime—especially if the purple sprouting broccoli is still going strong.
What can I say to the enthusiastic cook who is vaguely interested in the idea of growing his or her own vegetables but is still teetering on the brink of action? Realistically, for most of us these days there are no persuasive economic arguments for growing your own vegetables—at least, not if you cost out your time. (During summer gluts, my father used to pay me pocket money to pick and freeze peas, beans, and soft fruits from his vegetable garden. He once calculated that the resulting frozen produce cost him three or four times what it would in the supermarket. And that was without factoring in his own time.)
But there is still an important sense in which the vegetables you grow yourself really are free. When your time is given freely, what you make with it is free in the best sense of the word. When you buy your vegetables, you are a slave—to the car that takes you to the shops; to the methods, good or bad, by which the vegetables are produced; to the market forces, and the big bosses who fix the prices; to the shelf-stacking policies that determine the freshness, or otherwise, of the produce you buy. You have no say whatsoever in the means of production, no role in the quality of what becomes yours—only when you hand over the cash.
Grow your own vegetables and all that changes. What you take to the kitchen is not just a vegetable; it's a form of self-expression, a kind of opting out of the world as you're told it must be in favor of the world as you'd like it to be. You may doubt the wisdom of loading something as ordinary as a carrot with such deep personal meaning. But try growing them yourself, and you will find that carrots are far from ordinary. They are sleek, pointed orange miracles that come from nowhere to populate a bare patch of earth. And, almost astonishingly, you can eat them!
The fact is, those who already grow their own vegetables for the kitchen need no converting to the cause. I have yet to meet a vegetable gardener who complained that "it's hardly worth it, what with the choice available in the supermarket these days" or "It's too much time for too little reward" or "What's the point; you can hardly taste the difference anyway?" These are the clichés of the uninitiated—those who do not yet know the prickly heat of a fat radish freshly drawn from the earth, washed with a quick wipe on a dewy tuft of grass, then eaten without further ado; those who have not tasted the extra sugar dose in a pile of self-podded peas thrown into boiling water within an hour of being picked; those who have not marveled at the unrepentant earthiness of freshly dug potatoes…
Vegetable gardening is the very definition of a worthwhile project: something that matures slowly over time, whose progress is visible and tangible, and whose final rewards fulfill both a basic need, food, and one of life's finest luxuries—good food.
Adapted from The River Cottage Cookbook, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Copyright © 2001, 2008. Photography © 2001, 2008 by Simon Wheeler. Reprinted with permission from Ten Speed Press.