Growing vegetables from home to reduce carbon emissions

Food is one of the four key areas of action to address when we discuss reducing our carbon footprints. It is central to all our lives: it provides us sustenance and nutrition; connections, memories and culture are formed around food; it also provides opportunities for enjoyment and the learning of skills. However with it playing such a feature role in our lives, it also means that our food choices can have a big impact on our carbon footprints. In an increasingly globalised society where we can eat asparagus flown over from Peru even in mid-winter, where and when we source our food needs to be taken into consideration. For instance, the transport of products, particularly by air, makes a significant contribution to climate change, with the impact being even higher for products that need to be refrigerated from the point they are produced to when they reach the consumer, such as air-freighted asparagus. However local does not always mean lower carbon footprint – growing produce that is not suited to the UK climate or season can be very energy intensive. In a nutshell, eating food that is both seasonal and local wherever possible can reduce your carbon footprint considerably. While many in Cambridge are embracing this lower carbon lifestyle by supporting the wide-range of Cambridge businesses and producers offering seasonal and local food, some are taking it a step further and reducing their food miles through growing their own fruit and vegetables at home. Take Becca for example, who in the last year has started growing her own produce to reduce her impact on the planet.

Becca’s interest in sustainable food systems grew from her undergraduate geography degree, when she became aware of how individual lifestyle choices impact upon the environment, particularly around how one of the big differences you make in your everyday lives is to eat more sustainably and grow your own food. She is currently working for Cambridge Sustainable Food, working to achieve healthy and sustainable food for all in Cambridge, and alongside this she is also addressing her own personal food footprint by adapting her lifestyle choices. She has been vegetarian for four years, plant-based for the last year and has just started on a new adventure of growing her own vegetables from home. 

Becca working on the allotment

Becca has grown up in a family who loved growing their own vegetables and was inspired by her nan’s thriving and vibrant kitchen garden to start growing her own produce.

“My nanny had a huge garden where she would grow her own veg – she called it the ‘kitchen garden’. It had a greenhouse full of tomatoes that we would pick every summer, a fig tree, raspberry bushes, apple trees. I would also take my little cousins their to pick the corn on the cob.”

This interest in growing her own food has been brewing under the surface for the last couple of years, however she couldn’t find the time to focus on it during University. When the first lockdown started, Becca found herself with an influx in time along with more more space to grow, after a move to a house with a bigger garden. Supported by her family she got some plants and a vegetable book for her birthday and in 2020 finally started growing some beginner vegetables; courgettes, tomatoes, lettuce and peppers. 

After dipping her toes into the water last year she was ready to dive in again at the start of the most recent growing season, equipped with a bit more experience and having now built a raised bed in her garden. This year she has been growing potatoes, tomatoes, yellow and green courgettes, cabbage, radishes, leeks, radishes, raspberries and garlic. 

Having started growing all her produce from seed on her windowsill, it has now all been hardened off and everything is in its final growing position outside. After her experiences from last year she made sure to invest in some scaffolding netting to protect her raised beds, after the cabbages she tried to grow all got eaten.

Becca has found that dedicating some time to planning and research has been key in her growing success. She started off researching online the best beginner vegetables to grow . She then planned what she wanted to grow in the space she had, made a list of how to look after everything, timetabled what she needed to sow and when, ordered some pots, her seeds and all the extras she needed in. Once she had done her research, planning and had her equipment, she was ready to get growing. 

“The biggest thing for me has been making a plan at the start and then every so often going back and writing a to-do list for what needs to be done, as it can feel overwhelming at times when you have what feels like a million seedlings on your windowsill! At the same time you don’t always have to follow a very strict schedule, there is definitely some give and take, but it’s good to have a basic plan of what needs to be done around what time.”

Seedlings growing on windowsill

Alongside her own small vegetable patch Becca has also started helping out a lady in her village who has a large allotment in her garden, which has helped her learn more about gardening and has provided her the space to try growing different vegetables.

Becca has experienced some ups and downs in her first couple of years of gardening, however at the moment she is very proud that she’s managed to keep almost everything alive this time around. Everything is now in its final position to grow over the next few months, so Becca is very excited to see the outcome. Time has been a constraint for her, especially when going from lockdown to a more normal schedule, however she has realised that you can actually achieve a lot in a short space of time when it comes to the smaller tasks such as repotting, weeding and sowing seeds.

 “You don’t have to dedicate a whole afternoon even if you have a spare hour once or twice a week you can get a lot done. If I had a lot of work to do I would write a list of what needs to be done and work through it!”

She has also found at times that different resources have given different messages of what to do. She’s learnt to pick one, trial it out, and if that doesn’t work, she tries another way. Becca has come to the conclusion, and her green-fingered friends and family concur, that there isn’t an exact science to gardening, but rather a lot of trial and error and that you just have to go with it. 

Alongside making a difference to Becca’s carbon footprint, growing her own food has benefitted Becca’s mental wellbeing and helped her connect to her local community.

 “I’ve really felt the mental health benefits of gardening. It’s been a great way to spend time outdoors in all weathers! And I’ve got to know someone new where I live.”

Becca has definitely caught the growing bug. With an upcoming move to Leeds on the horizon to start her postgraduate studies, Becca plans to continue her growing adventure and hopes to get involved in a community allotment. After that she hopes to move somewhere with access to a garden so she can continue to delve into the world of food growing. 

Becca’s top tip for beginner growers is to start small with easy crops to help build your confidence, such as courgettes, tomatoes, potatoes and lettuce. And if growing from seed is daunting at first, you can also buy little plants instead to get you started. If all this goes well, you can try growing some extra crops the next year.

Tomato plants growing in Becca's garden

Becca’s Growing Resources

Huw Richards books and YouTube – Veg in One Bed is a great book as it does all the planning for you

BBC Gardeners world 

RHS Gardening 

Learn more about the ways you can reduce your food’s carbon emissions, through our guidance pages, covering multiple sustainable food practices that you can adopt at home, including eat seasonally, reducing food waste and eating more plant-based food.

Our carbon footprint calculator enables people to explore the impact of day-to-day choices, and empowers them to take action in their everyday lives. Discover the difference your emissions can make below.