We are all aware of government advice to eat five portions of fruit and veg every day. But round here, I live right in the centre of London, you can count on the fingers of one hand the shops that sell fresh produce.
When it comes to fruit and veg - fresh is best. Freshly picked fruit and veg contains more nutrients than stuff that's been sitting on the supermarket shelf. Where chemicals are pumped into the package it is done so to improve shelf appeal, not to conserve flavour or nutrients. If you are buying from a supermarket, the chances are that as well as coming from a very long way away, your 'fresh' produce will have been grown using chemicals. Pesticides are a form of nerve gas - they can freak out our brains as well as an insects.
How can we eat fresh and organic without spending an arm and a leg at the farmers market? My approach is to grow some of my own. Experimenting on my rooftop, where the soil is only six inches deep, has taught me that almost anything can be grown in a small pot or raised beds. I try to grow variety, focusing on foods that perish rather easily.
Every year I grow a few strawberries. This year I’m planning to grow wild strawberries. According to the Washington think tank, the Environmental Working Group, strawberries top the list of polluted crops. That may be due to pressure to provide strawberries all year round. This forces farmers to spray their crops with high doses pesticides and artificial fertilizers, encouraging them to flower and fruit out of season.
Most pot grown fruit and veg require full sunlight, but strawberries, especially wild strawberries, can be grown in partial shade. When harvested freshly, strawberries are an excellent source of antioxidants, vitamin C, potassium, folate and fibre. Just a handful sprinkled onto your breakfast cereal can add significant nutrition to the diet. Fruit also adds a natural sweet taste without adding too many calories or fat.
The vitamin C in soft fruit is a very fragile commodity. It is degraded by storage, light, heat and mechanical damage. So, if you want to receive a good crop of vitamins from your window boxes, wild strawberries are an excellent choice. The wild varieties are certainly a ‘cut-above’ the normal strawberry. Wild strawberries are packed with complex flavours that degrade very quickly, so if you do happen to find them in a shop, they'll be stratospherically expensive (and probably disappointing). Here in Fitzrovia we hardly ever get a frost, so I'll be quite brave and put them outside soon. (Just throw a teacloth or sheet of plastic over the plants if a night frost is forecast.)
Wild strawberries are perennials, they come back every year. Buy them now as small plants from a reputable supplier. http://www.blackmoor.co.uk offer plug plants by post. I grow my strawberries in a couple of strawberry pots that I’ve stacked up on top of a wheeled plant stand. This allows me to turn the pots around to make sure they all get good light during the ripening season.
Strawberries planted now will crop this year and then even more profusely next year. If you’ve got green fingers you can re-plant strawberry runners that come out in the late summer to form new plants for next year. Growers won’t get a year round crop. Wild strawberries are not cut and come again, like lettuces, but their distinctive leaves can be snipped at any time, to add flavour to a salad and their delicate flowers and scented foliage give visual pleasure and perfume throughout the year.
Wendy Shillam is running ‘How to Grow Fruit and Veg’ workshops in her roof top garden this summer, starting on March 10th. More details of the Spring Workshops can be found here: Spring Workshops.
A slightly shorter version of this article appears in our excellent local newspaper Fitzrovia News