Worried the end is nigh? Ditch the queues and grab a spade – here's how to grow food for free

Gardening offers a peaceful escape from coronavirus... and a source of fresh food. Take some tips from Huw Richards, the grow-your-own guru

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Pictured: Huw Richards in his garden with the latest crop of kale 
Pictured: Huw Richards in his garden with the latest crop of kale  Credit: Jason Ingram

Who on earth would want to face the supermarket right now?

You’ll likely be met with scenes not too dissimilar from the pages of a dystopian novel: shelves of toiletries, vegetables, medication and dried goods laid bare, save for the odd packet of soybean pasta.

Earlier this month, supermarkets joined forces to release a letter to consumers in response to a rise in panic buying:  “We would ask everyone to be considerate in the way they shop,” it states.

“We understand your concerns, but buying more than is needed can sometimes mean that others will be left without. There is enough for everyone if we all work together. Together we can make sure we are looking out for family, friends, neighbours.”

Since the release, has anything changed? In times of uncertainty, it can be near impossible to resist the lure of consumerism. We’re dependent, hell-bent on the search for anything to make us feel safe and comfortable but, arguably, we’re wired to be that way.

Panic-buying is a withdrawal symptom from a lifetime of having whatever we want, whenever we want. The mere suggestion that supermarket stock could be scarce sends us all into a frenzy. 

But it wasn’t always like this.Just ask anyone who lived throughout the last national emergency: the Second World War.

In order to combat rationing and food shortages, the British Ministry of Agriculture set up the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign - a national strategy that saw millions of men and women across the country grow their own food on any available land, from allotments and public parks to the lawns outside the Tower of London. It was estimated more than 1,400,000 people had allotments by the end of the campaign. 

Simply put, vegetable patches offer the security and control that supermarkets cannot give during times of crisis.

For Huw Richards, this is precisely why he started gardening. For one year, he challenged himself to grow his own food for free and gained valuable insight and tips along the way. 

It's time to grab a spade and dig for victory once more. 

Humble beginnings 

As soon as Huw Richards was old enough to toddle, he was introduced to all aspects of life on the family farm. It was a true rural upbringing and there was never a shortage of jobs to do: in winter, he and his father, Steven, would plant lemon balm, lovage and rosemary; hazy summer days were spent picking strawberries and peas. Not to mention the sheep, pigs and chickens on the farm that needed feeding, too.

Though this kind of life may seem idyllic in times of pandemic and uncertainty, being more self-sufficient in fresh food is starting to seem an increasingly good idea at any time. Spending more time in the garden, planting, sowing and growing fruit and vegetables, is not only good for the environment but affords an extra level of security.

“I’m glad I had a childhood in the garden, some of my fondest memories are there,” reminisces Richards, now 21. “My parents were extremely clever about getting me involved: I always had a good mix of weeding, sowing and planting so I didn’t lose interest.”

His parents, Steven and Clarissa, encouraged the children to take an active interest in rural farming, showing them as often as they could the connection between the vegetables growing on the plot and the dish on the table.

One spring morning before primary school, Steven took Huw aside and outstretched his hand. “You see these,” his father said, prodding some beetroot seeds. “When you come back from school, you can help me germinate them in water. That way they’ll grow better and, in a few months, we can eat them for lunch.” This act of encouragement was a moment Richards remembers as particularly significant.

“After that, I couldn’t wait for the end of the day,” he says. “I found myself looking out of the window of the classroom and thinking about those seeds. It just clicked: plant something and it will grow. As a kid, it was a huge deal.”

Nicknamed “the future of gardeners”, the two-time author is now a household name among the green-fingered for his YouTube channel, Huw Richards – Grow Food Organically, which has more than 200,000 subscribers. His videos attract millions of views every month for their down-to-earth approach to gardening, and he’s not just a hit in the UK. He’s even had subscribers from North Korea (where access to YouTube is limited).

His journey had humble beginnings.

“In 2011, I was chatting to a school friend who was making gaming videos,” he laughs. “He had one of those LG smartphones with an abysmal 140 pixel camera. But it didn’t matter, his videos were getting over 200 views. It inspired and frustrated me. If he can do it while gaming in one hand and recording in another, why couldn’t I?”

"Compost is the currency of the garden"  Credit: Mark Douet

It came to him one day while sitting in the garden, pondering on how he, too, could impart some knowledge. “I realised it had to be a gardening channel,” he says. “I already knew enough to make a few videos and there was nothing to lose. I had a camera, so I started my first video right then and there.” Excited, the young plantsman hit “record” and ran down the garden to the potting shed to begin the video.

Entitled “How to pot on a sapling”, the first tutorial on his YouTube channel was uploaded in July 2011. And since then, has amassed more than 4,000 views. “I simply couldn’t stop,” he laughs. “By the end of that summer holiday, I’d uploaded over 30 videos. I had no idea what I was doing with editing but it was incredibly fun.” And it was only the beginning – Richards would go on to create 400-plus videos in his garden, from guides to growing vegetables (namely: potatoes, peas, strawberries and squash) to tutorials on building pallets and compost bins.

What I’d like to know, I ask him, is how he keeps his creativity flowing for so many tutorials. “You wouldn’t believe how many blocks I used to run into!” he laughs. “But now I have three tried-and-tested methods to spark inspiration: I’ll head to the garden and look at the vegetables; I’ll look back on old videos and try to refresh them; or I’ll watch other YouTubers in entrepreneurship or self-development.”

Richards recommends taking it easy on yourself if you’re pining for instant success. “If you don’t get it right the first time, don’t worry, the fantastic thing about growing vegetables is that there is always next year.”

Despite rapidly gaining popularity online, things didn’t take off until an interview with Wales Online in 2017. “Looking back, that time in my life is such a blur,” he admits. “One moment I had an interview with a journalist about my YouTube channel, and the next I was inundated with calls from agents and producers.” At just 18, Richards had recently finished his A-levels and had decided to take a year out to focus on gardening.

He found that, like many craftsmen, artists and video-makers, the sudden rise to social media stardom was not without its challenges. “If I could go back in time, I would tell myself not to focus on negativity,” he says.

“I started doing tutorials because of a belief that anyone can have a flourishing garden, regardless of whether you’re in a suburban or urban space.” He ponders on this. “It’s easy to focus on the assumptions made about you – but if you believe that what you’re doing is valid, then it’s worth it.”

Richards’s second book, Grow Food for Free (DK, £16.99)

His determination paid off, and a career as an author then began. Opening his inbox to find an email from the publisher Dorling Kindersley, he set to work on first book, Veg in One Bed.

This practical, month-by-month guide to growing in raised beds was an instant bestseller, earning praise from critics, readers and his online fan base. “My first book was centred around making an excess of information simple,” he says. “There are far too many contrasting articles on raised beds and most people don’t know where to start. Putting all my tips and tricks into one book proved to be helpful for readers, and that makes me proud.”

His video content had to take a back seat, but he began to notice the same excuses popping up in his inbox. “I kept seeing the same subject headers: I don’t have space. It’s too expensive. It’s too much work,” he says. “Although I’m lucky enough to live on a farm, there are so many ways to have a beautiful vegetable garden I had to prove that these excuses are just a frame of mind.”

Richards’s second book, Grow Food for Free (DK, £16.99) does precisely this. After a one-year experiment to see whether he could grow food for free, he takes the reader, step-by-step, on a journey to owning their own greengrocer that’s open 365 days a year. From setting up your own veg patch, recipes for compost, sourcing seeds and plants to growing perennials (which, he claims, are key for any budding gardener in the first year) the book is the ultimate guide for keen gardeners wanting a lush vegetable patch for next to nothing.

Huw Richards’s top tips to grow food for free

Vegetable garden with raised beds and greenhouse  Credit: Ron Evans

The art of barter

  • “Bartering is so effective and it’s a shame that we have forgotten it: there is no right or wrong way to do it, plus it’s far more fulfilling than handing over notes of cash and bank cards. Most hotels and cafés will be happy for you to take some waste away (don’t underestimate the power of an empty loo-roll tube) and I’d advise signing up to as many local Facebook swap shops as you can. Recently on my local forum, a member was giving away free pallets to anyone that would take them.”

Use somebody else’s garden

  • “You can grow food even if you don’t own a garden. Last year, I stayed in a terraced house through Airbnb in Clapham. The garden was huge, but my lovely host had severe arthritis in her hands. She told me that she was desperate for someone to come over and look after it because she couldn’t, even offering to pay for the tools and seeds. I’m part of a few groups back home where people are offering up their back gardens because they don’t have time to look after them.”

Accept failure

  • “Little failures are inevitable, and I’ve experienced them every year. Last year, the broad beans failed: it could’ve been down to the seeds, but who knows? Start by working backwards and slowly eliminate the cause of failure, perhaps the cucumber harvest failed because you didn’t sow the seeds early enough. Or your seeds didn’t germinate because the compost was lacking nutrients. Regardless of what has happened, there will always be another year to start. Over the past few years, the weather has become more erratic; it is becoming harder to predict frost and storms. An easy way to get around this is to plant as many different things as possible. That way, you can always have fruit or vegetables that flourish.”

Start composting

  • “Compost is the currency of the garden, so the first thing anyone should do before starting their journey to home-grown food is build a compost bin. This could be anything, from tying four pallets together to using a corner in the wall and wrapping it around. Frankly, anywhere you can start composting is great. Keep that going while you focus on growing.”

Look in the cupboard

  • “Remember those dried beans you swore you’d use but never did? They could be perfect for growing. I love growing dried peas (marrowfat peas) as they’re super cheap and extremely rewarding – I got a harvest in under three weeks. Try growing dried peas in a really shallow tray with minimal compost.”

Perfect perennials

  • “Perennial plants are the most important things in the first year, as it gives them time to establish. A great example is strawberry plants: people give them away and I do so every year because they breed like rabbits.
  • “The best thing about strawberries is that they don’t like super-fertile soil. If you plant now, simply pop in the ground mixed with coffee grounds or liquid compost and you’ll get a harvest in June or July.”

Huw Richards’s Welsh cheesy leeks

I’m a firm believer that the most sustainable diet is one that is local and seasonal. I’m no expert chef but this is properly good, seasonal comfort food. My dad made this on a cold chilly night and it turned out to be a great side dish for salmon. 

Credit: Alamy 

Prep time: 5 minutes | Cooking time: 20 minutes 

SERVES

Four as a side 

INGREDIENTS 

  • 5 leeks, trimmed and cut into 3cm lengths
  • Large knob of salted butter, softened
  • 80g Hafod cheddar cheese, grated
  • Freshly cracked black pepper, to garnish

METHOD 

  1. To begin the leeks, clean and cut into 3cm lengths.
  2. Place the leeks into a medium pot of boiling salted water and cook until softened.
  3.  Once softened, drain, and fire up the grill to a high heat.
  4. Transfer the leeks into a shallow, ovenproof dish in a single layer. Try not to overlap the lengths.
  5. Glaze with softened butter and liberally grate the Hafod cheddar over the top. Finish with a hefty crack of black pepper.
  6.  Put the dish underneath the grill until caramelised and bubbling.
  7.  Serve immediately.