I love this time of year when the harvest is rolling in, when you can wander round the garden and pick enough to make up a meal from the ingredients you have in your hand. But it also gets me reflecting on the choices I made when planning this year’s garden. Could I have squeezed in more peas? What made the peppers do so well? Did I make the right choices about what to grow in the space I have?
There are plenty of ways to evaluate the success of a garden harvest and probably every gardener would weigh up the factors differently. One of the most respected writers on vegetable gardening, Joy Larkcom, believed that ‘Value to Space Rating’ (VSR) was the best way to describe it and in her classic book ‘Grow Your Own Vegetables’ (now on its 4th edition after 30 years!) she lists a VSR rating for each vegetable. Plants with a three-star VSR give a large crop for the amount of soil they occupy, whereas one-star vegetables give only a meagre harvest if you’re pushed for space. It’s based on a combination of factors: how much harvest you get per square foot of garden and how long the plant is in the ground (preventing other crops being sown there).
VSR is great for small gardens and those trying to keep down costs by growing their own food. However, I think there are other factors at play for many of us. For me personally another important element is how much work (raising plants, feeding, watering, weeding) goes into each crop – perhaps a ‘Value to Work Rating’ (VWR?) With young children in the family and always more work than there is time to do, the amount of tending that a crop requires is a big factor in whether I will grow it. For example, I know that I can grow cauliflowers successfully. In the past I have gone to some lengths to adequately supplement my sandy soil, protect them from root fly and caterpillars and tend to their every need. But they fall too low on the VWR scale for me to consider them worthwhile every year.
So how do we value the crops we grow against these criteria? In ‘The Gourmet Gardener’ Bob Floweredew has this to say about what motivates him: ‘I myself became consumed by gardening simply searching for top-quality fare for my table... as gourmet gardeners we grow for taste, not for sheer economic production.’ So value does not have to be merely weighed in pounds of harvest. It can be measured in freshness, flavour, health benefits, convenience and so many other great qualities that don’t feature in plastic-wrapped produce from a supermarket.
Which vegetables make this high-value list will no doubt be a personal choice. For me the best value this year has been from the crops I know I grow well: great flavoured tomatoes, fresh carrots and crisp apples. Others have exceeded my expectations: a new variety of bean that was slow starting but is now producing bags of harvest almost daily; peppers grown from seed that seem to ripen even under our wet summer conditions. Whatever your own criteria, I think it’s good to reflect on what makes each crop worth-while and in that way learn to grow the things that are high-value for you. The goal of this reflection is higher satisfaction from the end result each year and that can only be a good thing.