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Lying in my horizontal office, or ‘hammock’ as my husband calls it, I pop a few freshly picked peas into my mouth and contemplate the artichoke I’ll choose for tonight’s supper.

To complete the picture of homegrown smugness, our cornucopia includes crimson-stemmed ruby chard, golden courgettes, every kind of salad, borlotti beans, French beans, runners, dwarf beans, cucumbers, pumpkins and lashings of basil, parsley and coriander.

For once, I’m on trend. Since lockdown began, traffic on the Royal Horticultural Society’s Grow Your Own website is up 200 per cent year on year, and seed firms are struggling to keep up with demand. Suttons alone has attracted 150,000 new customers since March.

Covid-19, plus the 75th anniversary of the second world war’s Dig for Victory campaign, has added to the allure of food autarky. However, I fear that many ingenues may only now be discovering that lounging around in a hammock is a rarity for those of us who aspire to self-sufficiency. This activity can be expensive when measured in the time, effort, and amount of money involved.

© Jane Owen

I blame the misconception on a recent FT Books essay which focused on all the lovey-dovey stuff around nature and gardening and ignored the misery of pruning fruit trees in January up a three metre ladder in a force seven gale, or going head-to-head against a really aggressive snail.

The truth is it is difficult to relax over a sorrel and spinach salad, while in the veg patch, battalions of cabbage maggots are giving you the evils and a squadron of carrot flies are preparing to do their worst. And it is impossible to maintain sangfroid when a Muntjac deer, barely five metres away, is nibbling your tomato plants.

A sawn-off shotgun is a tempting solution for the Muntjac (I am joking, Mr Scandinavian Reader who gave me such a hard time when I wrote about flooding a dog fox out of his carcass-filled den). Instead, I arm myself with sawn-off water bottles against pigeons and mice. The half-bottles slot over newly-sown peas and beans. Once the seedlings have outgrown their informal cloches, the deer materialise and devour the tender delicacies.

I could go on but, frankly, the memory of these incursions does nothing for my blood pressure or mental health - both of which, according to the government, the NHS, and my GP, are supposed to be healed and eased by gardening. 

Financial costs add to the stress, as my husband observed while adjusting the anti-pest machine guns on our watchtower (NB, Mr Scandinavian, this is a joke, although in the interests of full disclosure, I am the first Chelsea Flower Show designer to have included Kalashnikov guns in a show garden).

I digress. Here’s another misconception about grow your own. The Office for National Statistics counts home grown vegetables as ‘free’. FREE? The peas I’d been scoffing, all six pods of the delightful things, represent our total crop so far, making the ballpark cost 50 pence per pod.

Thank you, Old Money readers, for your moving and generous responses to April’s column which focused on philanthropy. You donated around £1,500 to Cancer Research and the Helen & Douglas House as well as suggesting practical help. And one reader, who sits in the House of Lords, has offered to help HDH with its fundraising efforts.

Others got in touch to let me know about their own fundraising activities which range from an eight-year-old boy, inspired by Captain Tom, who walked eight miles a day for eight days in order to raise £8,000 for NHS charities, to a pizza delivery cyclist who gives £10 a month to Wikipedia.

Many readers emailed and commented on the pleasure of giving and of helping others.

Finally I’d like to raise a toast to a good cause I was involved with 10 years ago when I designed a Chelsea Flower Show garden to raise awareness about the loss of ancestral land of the Baka people in sub-Saharan rainforests. The Green & Black's’ Chelsea Flower Show garden included AK47s (a first for Chelsea) and it was made by garden goddess Anne-Marie Powell with help from Margerite Akom, Jeanne Noah and Mathilde Zang. 

The garden did its bit to win back Baka land, but in the wake of Covid chaos, illegal logging and clearing have tragically accelerated. Some of the organisations that are trying to help include the Earthworm Foundation, the Rainforest Foundation and Survival International; it would be well worth digging into your pockets to help if you can.

Likewise the artichoke. Our sole and only artichoke probably works out at about £25. Over time the per-artichoke cost will drop as the same plant produces an increasing number of the gourmet delights, but right now, the cost is high. So let’s dig down into the ‘free’-ness or otherwise of homegrown produce.

I normally allow around £30 a year for vegetable seed. Then there are infrastructure costs: my husband made two vegetable cages (to guard against deer, pigeons and foxes) from chicken wire and discarded wood discovered at the back of the garage. They would have cost £80 a piece on the open market.

We forked out £25 on netting; £13 on Nemaslug natural slug control; £15 on seed compost; and £40 on well-rotted horse manure. Hazel sticks for bean and cucumber wigwams were free because they grow here but would otherwise have set us back by, say, £30-plus. Our large garden is also ‘free’ but those without rolling acres would pay around £50 a year for an allotment.

© Jane Owen

Some of these things - like my array of gardening tools - can be used year after year. But most will eventually need replacing.

Next: what about an irrigation system, and a greenhouse or polytunnel? These can cost anywhere between £5 for a watering can to £200,000 for a state of the art greenhouse.

Then there’s my time which could be charged at zero because I do it for love, or around £1,800 per year if we were to hire a gardener. But a corporate lawyer digging over her potato patch might be forgoing a rather more eye-watering hourly rate.

Without those big extra costs, I am hoping to provide vegetables for the two of us for an average of one meal a day for a year for around £40 a week. That’s roughly double the contents of an equivalent commercially available weekly box costing £20.

In other words, any idea about ‘free’ produce is charmingly misguided. Any economist would conclude that I must be insane to be growing instead of buying the stuff - but I’m sure my fellow gardeners and allotment-tillers would disagree.

Jane Owen is an author and former deputy editor of FT Weekend. Email oldmoney@ft.com; Twitter: @Jane_Owen

Letter in response to this article:

Recalculating the costs of a kitchen garden / From Maurice Bichard Abingdon, Oxfordshire, UK

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