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The Future of Food

Bristol author, editor and renowned garden writer, Cinead McTernan, has worked in horticulture for nearly 15 years. On 31 March, she is set to publish her fourth book, City Veg: Inspiration from an Urban Garden, which just so happens to be the perfect read for us inner city dwellers. If you’re looking to build a botanical ecosystem of your own this Spring, this one’s for you…

As many of us begin to make health – our own health, and the health of the environment – a priority, our approach to eating has certainly become more mindful. Some people are choosing ingredients that are naturally in season, while others are looking to grow fresh produce of their own. Starting an allotment or small patch from scratch, however, can be daunting, let alone costly if not well-maintained. If you’re an inner city dweller, it can also be difficult to find the space for a substantial plot.

On 31 March, Bristol-based author and renowned garden writer, Cinead McTernan, is set to release her new book, City Veg: Inspiration from an Urban Garden, which not only effectively answers basic beginner questions, but challenges and inspires even the most experienced horticulturist.

In her warm, candid account of a full growing season, written over the course of a year, Cinead documents the triumphs and tribulations that she faced while tending to her plot – one that was no bigger than the size of two classic 1970s VW camper vans. From designing the garden in January to harvesting home-grown ingredients throughout the growing season, Cinead takes us on a personal journey, all the while supplying us with quick and easy recipe ideas to help us make the most of our bountiful yield. Eager to delve into the pages, we take 5 with Cinead this month…

Firstly, where did the inspiration for City Veg come from?
I’ve grown veg for years – for a while in an allotment when I lived in London, but for the last 10 years or so, in a small city garden. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that squeezing crops into beds, borders and containers is a completely different experience to growing in a bigger plot. It’s impossible to grow enough to be self-sufficient, so it’s as much about connecting with nature and spending time outdoors as it is producing an abundant homegrown harvest. There are lots of brilliantly practical books to help you get started, but there isn’t much, if anything, approaching veg growing from this ‘bigger-picture’ angle. I also loved the idea of writing a frank account, where successes and failures are celebrated, because that’s the reality of growing-your-own. It’s the sort of thing I like reading, because often it feels we should be striving for perfection and hiding our flaws, which is not only exhausting and unrealistic, but ignores the notion that sometimes it’s the journey not the destination that is more enjoyable and has true value.

What’s the best thing about working in harmony with nature, providing food and habitats for the wildlife?
Living in the city means our small back garden has become a haven for my family and our pets, as well as wildlife. It’s a connection with nature that I absolutely treasure: our fruit trees create a bit of privacy, but they also provide food for garden birds – we have a sweet pair of pigeons who appear every year to feast on the June berries. We’ve had a beautiful young fox bask in the sun on top of our greenhouse for an entire afternoon, and once I unwittingly disturbed a toad when I was tidying up some old pots. We also see bees and butterflies throughout the year, which enliven the garden and remind us that we’re not the only ones to enjoy the fruits of our labours.

What’s your favourite dish to make using the fruits and vegetables from your garden in the Spring?
Peas, sown at the start of the year under glass, can be picked from mid-April. As they haven’t fully matured yet, you can pick the whole pod, blanch them and buzz them up to make the most deliciously sweet pea puree. A good tip is to plunge them into iced water after boiling, to help them retain that intense colour. Mix with ricotta cheese as a filing for cannelloni or use as an alternative to pesto over pasta. I also absolutely love wet garlic – basically, this is very young garlic, which is soft enough to eat whole – stalks and all. Add to omelettes, tortillas or a medley of green veg to give it a distinctively sweet flavour.

What are your top tips for growing healthy fruits and vegetables at this time of year?
Make sure your soil is in tip top condition, because if it’s starved of nutrients it won’t be able to nourish your plants. Add organic matter to beds and borders, or refresh compost in containers. It’s also worth being realistic about how much sun your plot gets – if it doesn’t get much, go for varieties that will cope with shady conditions. Similarly, in sunny spots, go for fruit and veg that will appreciate it. Keep an eye on weeds, as they’ll also be springing into life once the weather warms, and compete with your crops for water and nutrients.

What’s the best piece of advice for anyone looking to build their own vegetable plot this Spring?
Try to create the biggest growing space possible – you won’t regret it. Think about crops you love eating and the ones that will give you a long cropping season – boring, but true. Courgettes are absolutely brilliant because in the height of the season, they can be harvested pretty much every other day. If you don’t have a lot of time or space, go for plugs – they’re a bit more pricey, but well worth it. Try rocketgardens.co.uk and sarahraven.com.

What great lessons did you learn on this journey?
It never fails to amaze me how rewarding it is to pick home-grown fruit and veg. I promise you’ll never get bored of eating the first strawberry of the season, straight off then plant, or pulling an oddly shaped carrot, which tastes nothing like shop bought ones. I also cherished being able to take the time to notice what was going on in our garden – even if it was just popping out to pick some fresh herbs and hearing the buzz of a bee, or see how the gorgeous the young, vibrant kale leaves looked when they were back lit by sunlight. It really makes a difference to stop and appreciate the little things – and, of course, being able to write about it was the icing on the cake.

What’s next in the pipeline? Are you looking to introduce more fruits and vegetables into your plot this year?
A new year, a new growing season. I want to try growing sweet potatoes again, which didn’t work last year, and I’d like to try some more grains as the millet and buckwheat, which I grew last year too, was surprisingly successfuL. And we make a delicious quinoa apple cake.

City Veg: Inspiration from an Urban Garden by Cinead McTernan (Bloomsbury Wildlife) is published in hardback and ebook.