I'm a gardening expert – growing my own food on an allotment saves me £300 a year
GREEN-fingered gardener Lucy Taylor is an allotment expert.
The 40-year-old midwife from Darlington began growing her own food before the pandemic started in 2019.
What started out in her back garden soon turned into a full-blown hobby when Lucy took on a quarter-acre allotment plot at 37 years old.
"People laughed at me when I took it on, as a woman in her 30s working full time, I wasn't really the average allotmenteer – there's still an image that allotments are for retired, older men in flat caps.
"It's been my escape and sanctuary during some really stressful times over the pandemic – and now again with the rising cost of living."
And although Lucy didn't initially grow veg to save money, she soon saw the cost benefits, saving almost £300 in the past year alone.
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"The biggest savings were tomatoes – I grew 8kg last year and at £9.50 a kilo for organic ones in the supermarket that's a huge £76 saving!"
The fruit and veg devotee hasn't bought staple items like onions or potatoes for the past two years – which is a saving of £46.28 each year for these two items alone.
This is based on Tesco's lowest price for onions and potatoes, so the savings would be higher if organic product prices are factored in.
Besides the savings made from the food, Lucy notes how her spending patterns have changed.
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"I have certainly seen how the hobby can save money, before my allotment I used to spend my weekends shopping and spending, now I am down at the plot at first light and can easily lose myself for the full day."
Here's her insiders advice to help you grow your own food.
Find the right plot
Allotment plots can cost roughly £15 to £80 a year to rent depending on location and size.
But sometimes the rent can be reduced or even free if the plot needs a lot of work.
Lucy managed to get her plot for free from May 2019 to January 2020 because of the state it was in at the time she took it on.
So it's worth looking for a plot in need of some DIY to get the rent subsidised for a few months or even a year.
Since January 2020, she has paid £50 a year to rent her allotment space, but she notes that you don't have to sign up for the entire year.
Those who find they can't take on the challenge usually have no trouble passing it on to the next person, as waiting lists for allotments are likely to be full.
To register your interest in a plot, you can contact your local council.
Be savvy with seeds
Unless you're planning to enter your produce into any competitions, there's no need to buy fancy seeds to get going.
You probably have seeds hiding in your fridge that can start you off.
That's right – the seeds in your cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries and other foods are good enough to replant.
Lucy used seeds from organic foods to get her started, which eventually made her bigger savings as this type of produce is more expensive to buy in supermarkets.
Buying organic seeds online will cost you roughly £3 per pack, meaning you could save over a tenner if you grow more than four types of vegetables.
It's also a good idea to check Facebook and join some free seed swapping groups, like the one named Seed Swap which has 28.8K members.
These groups allow people to trade seeds to acquire exactly what they're after.
But make sure you have something to give before joining – you can't expect free seeds if you have nothing to offer in return.
The allotmenteer stressed that equipment costs can be as low as you make them.
Poly tunnels and sheds are often left by previous owners due to them being difficult to move, so you'll likely land one of those for free.
But you don't have to buy new if your plot comes without one either.
Lucy bought her shed secondhand for £20 online, saving her hundreds if she were to buy one new – so check the likes of Facebook marketplace and Gumtree to avoid missing out on a steal.
She notes that allotmenteers can make their own poly tunnels too.
Some have done so by constructing two semi-circles of steel out of old trampoline bases and then putting plastic over the top – again, saving hundreds.
So her biggest tip for aspiring growers is not to chuck anything away.
Materials like old wood, paving stones and pipe may come in handy if you want to create raised allotment beds, which otherwise cost anything from £30 to hundreds.
Lucy added: "It's a nice challenge to be able to make something out of nothing, instead of spending money on new things."
Make your own compost
Buying compost from B&Q can cost £6 for a 50 litre bag to £165 for a 1,000 litre bag.
But Lucy doesn't pay a penny.
Making your own compost can be as simple as collecting piles of old leaves and storing them in a bin bag for a year, allowing the decomposition process to take place naturally.
Don't throw your food waste away either, as vegetable peelings and scraps can go into a compost bin and reap you the best compost money can buy, according to Lucy.
Though this may take some time, you can begin the process while waiting for an allotment space to become free.
Insects can prove troublesome for crops, as they can infest or eat them and undo all your hard work.
Lucy has a couple of tricks up her sleeve to deter pests.
The expert made a frame to block them out by pinning£4 net curtains from Ikea to old water pipe and placing over the crops.
Though she noted you can pin the netting down with other household items.
"One man on my site has pinched all his wife’s knitting needles to pin the net down," she said.
And that's not all.
Lucy also recommends "companion planting", which is when different crops are placed in close proximity to one another with the aim of confusing pests.
Lucy said: "I put a mint plant in with carrots which deters carrot fly or I'll sow a few basil seeds with tomatoes deters whitefly."
There's also "sacrificial planting", which is when gardeners grow a trap crop to attract pests away from the main crops.
"Caterpillars love nasturtium leaves and will stay away from my broccoli if they have a choice, slugs prefer marigolds to eating the veg too," says Lucy.
Speak to others on the allotment
One of the biggest resources you have at an allotment is the other people there, says the experienced veg grower.
Getting to know your allotment neighbours means you can take advantage of seed swaps, share tools and trade tips.
Knowledge is power, after all.
If you're looking to make more savings on your bills, here's a full list of gadget that can help you lower costs.
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